When you first meet Kigali-based Jacqui Sebageni you are immediately struck by her elegance. Dig a bit deeper though and you’ll discover that she’s also a fascinating person to talk to…
Jacqui, by choice, would prefer not to be written about as she does not like to be in the limelight, even joking with us, “It’s hard to get Rwandans to talk!” She prefers to be behind-the-scenes. However, the mystique that enshrouds her is the very catalyst that has driven us to track her down!
Jacqui, together with business partner Manzi Kayihura, owns tourism company Thousand Hills Africa (THA; previously known as Thousand Hills Expeditions), which they founded in Rwanda in 2004. Thousand Hills is our ground handler in Rwanda and holds the exclusive sales channel for Bisate Lodge, our new and exciting ecotourism development in the country.
We’ve since managed to chat to Jacqui, who has shared a little bit more about where she grew up, what her work entails and why Bisate excites her so much…
Growing up and Meeting Manzi
I was born in Rwanda and in my early childhood moved to Kenya. I lived in Mombasa – it was a wonderful place to grow up. Mombasa is as laid back as any island, has a blend of different cultures, a welcoming people and attracts tourists who visit from all over the world.
I must have been about 13 years old when I first remember meeting Manzi (Manzi is the same age). Our families have been friends for as long as I can remember and we reconnected when we were travelling from Kampala to Mombasa and made a stop in Nairobi (where his family lived). The meeting was unexpected but both mothers recognised each other instantly and all I can remember was laughter and much happiness from both sides. The families stayed close and we continued to visit one another over the years. We eventually worked together at our very first jobs.
Manzi and Jacqui
My dream has always been to travel. A friend of the family told me the best way to travel is to plan, organise and get paid for other people’s travels. She then introduced me to Flamingo Travel (where Manzi and I first worked together). I have not looked back since.
I worked in Kenya at Abercrombie & Kent for almost seven years and made my way through the ranks – Customer Relations, Tours Consultant, I was in charge of incentives and meetings and ended up in the sales and marketing department. I then decided to move to Canada where I worked at Voyages Ideal.
Life in Montreal could not have been more different but I grew to love it there. Winter was a huge shock for me but the other seasons made up for it.
Returning Home: Rwanda
I came to Rwanda for a short visit at the beginning of 2004. During that visit I realised that I could not live anywhere else. At that time I was not sure what I would do for work. The only thing I knew was that I was making the right decision.
Manzi had moved to Rwanda as well and eventually sat me down. I was busy getting re-acquainted with family and friends and making sure my nine year old son adjusted to his new life. I was excited because of the opportunities that Rwanda had to offer and its obvious potential as a tourism destination. I was in awe of what had been achieved since the country’s genocide in 1994 and completely drawn in by the energy and belief in the country and its future. All of this was contagious and I wanted to be a part of it.
Manzi suggested that we start a tour company and I immediately accepted the offer.
What makes Rwanda a must-visit destination ?
Rwanda will exceed your expectations in every way – it is incredibility diverse: from Akagera National Park’s wide-open savannah in the east to Nyungwe, the largest tract of virgin montane forest in the south-west, and Volcanoes National Park, the string of imposing volcanoes in the north west, home to mountain gorillas and over 23 rivers and lakes. Topping it all are the people of Rwanda.
I believe, and have always said, that Rwanda is more than a wildlife destination. It is a story. A story of hope and recovery. It is a story of resilience and the strength of the Rwandan people who have shown the world that after a divided and destructive history they have unified to become an example in reconciliation, gender equality, economic growth and safety. It is hard not to be struck and drawn in by the friendliness, enthusiasm, optimism and dignity of the Rwandan people.
Top animals for people to seek out?
Gorillas, golden monkeys, chimpanzees and the variety of birdlife.
What experience with gorillas has been the most memorable for you?
Every gorilla experience is memorable. An especially moving one was tracking the Agashya group and watching the young gorillas who were especially active, riding on their mother but falling off; another was watching them imitating the young adults, beating their chests only to fall over backward. The little ones are the cutest!
The gorilla trek is at once emotional and absorbing. They are so close to humans in their actions, behaviour, family interaction, the silverback – who is the protector of his family, the young ones so cute, curious, wide-eyed and oblivious of everything else around them. All this makes for a unique experience. What happens in the hour spent with them cannot be predicted but the one thing I tell visitors that they can be sure of is that it will be the fastest hour they have ever lived. You will not be disappointed. It makes so much sense to book a second gorilla trek. Each experience will be completely different.
What excites you the most about Bisate?
The location with its beautiful views, all the wonderful indigenous trees that have now made the place their own, the very Rwandan look of the forest villas, the engagement with the community and how they feel a part of it and the opportunity for Rwandan people to train and improve their horizon… the list is long.
Top three tips for first time travellers to Rwanda?
Allow yourself time in Rwanda, you will fall in love with the country. Bring good walking shoes. Make sure you have enough camera memory for all the photographs you will take!
Apart from seeing gorillas, what other must-do activities should people coming to the country try to fit in while here?
Golden monkey tracking, community visits, kayaking and tree planting – be a part of our reforestation project at Bisate!
How has the tourism landscape changed over the years?
Tourism has grown tremendously. We have diversified to offer more than gorillas. We will soon have the rhino and will be able to boast seven of the large charismatic animals – rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, gorillas and chimpanzees.
We have seen a lot of growth for many reasons: Rwanda is a safe country, there is improved infrastructure (roads, airports), connectivity with the rest of the word and significant business reforms. With conservation we have seen the growing success of Akagera National Park, improved growth in numbers in mountain gorillas and successful private and public partnerships such as Akagera Management Company.
Kigali is becoming a hub with easier airline access to everywhere. We now have a state-of-the-art convention centre that has hosted some of Africa’s most prestigious meetings and a growing arts and culture movement.
Your top three African countries to visit and why?
Botswana – so different from Rwanda and amazing wildlife experiences. Ethiopia for the history and culture and Zambia to see the magnificent Victoria Falls…
Best part about running a travel company?
Tourism is a young industry in Rwanda. It has been such a joy to watch and be a part of the growth, to see top international brands make their home here, and Rwanda ranked, in many publications, amongst the top travel destinations in the world.
Up Next: Meet Manzi … coming soon!