It was with great excitement that I travelled to Rwanda to attend the Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony. This event is strictly by invitation only so the Muzungu was honoured to be invited by the Rwanda Development Board, thanks to my friends at The Gorilla Organization (TGO), a British charity whose dedicated international team pull out all the stops to protect the Mountain Gorillas in their native forest habitats straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As we drove uphill towards the Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony site, the roads were lined with children and young people all walking in the same direction, eager to see the pop stars descending on Kinigi for the ‘Festival of the Gorillas.’
We sat in the ubiquitous white plastic seats and waited for the show to begin. Every few minutes there was an excited cry from the crowd as another celebrity joined the throng. All we could see was a sea of black heads, just visible above the safety barrier. The kids were gathered for the popstars of course – there was a huge cheer as popular singer Rastaman arrived – we only hoped they would leave the gorilla naming ceremony as conservationists too.
One thing is for sure, one way or another, the majority of these young people will benefit from the gorilla tourism industry, the flagship product for Rwandese tourism. Five per cent of the revenue from tourism is invested in communities living around Rwanda’s national parks. This investment is helping change behaviours, changing once-poachers into protectors of the gorillas and wildlife and habitats in general.
The Rwandese Prime Minister welcomed “ambassadors, friends of Rwanda and distinguished guests – and not forgetting the very important residents of Musanze” to Kwita Izina 2013.
Half of Kigali, representatives from Nairobi, Kampala and 61 journalists from across the world made their way to this small town in the Land of a Thousand Hills for the ninth annual conservation celebration. Not a bad show for a small country the size of Wales.
The Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony is a very inclusive affair. Over 30 countries were represented at Kwita Izina in 2013. As each country’s name was read out, its representatives stood up to the applause of the audience: the muzungu was delighted to stand up and represent Uganda, from whence I’d travelled on another legendary bus journey.
Traditional dancing from Rwanda’s National Ballet was a delight. Reggae artists Dr Claude and King James went down like a house on fire! I was happy to get on my feet and dance by then. Goodness knows the foothills of the volcanoes are a lot cooler than Kampala. The Muzungu should have worn socks!
The lady MC reminded us that “while we are here to celebrate Rwanda’s gorillas, you can see how much more Rwanda has to offer.” Well organised, professional and a fun day out, I was very impressed by the whole setup and the global ambition of this event.
Audience participation is a key feature of Kwita Izina. Amongst the international celebrities invited to name the gorillas were the American actor Isaiah Washington; the Japanese Ambassador to Rwanda; actors from Nigeria and the Netherlands; the economist Jeffrey Sachs and Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization, Dr. Taleb Rifai. You can watch the highlights of the 2013 Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony here.
Each gorilla was named, in English and in Kinyarwanda, to claps and murmurs of approval from the audience. The first baby gorilla to be named was Icyamamare Maktub or ‘Rising Star.’ I liked the name Isimbi ‘Shining Pearl’ said to “represent the shining light of Africa: Rwanda. We look forward to shining the light on tourism in Rwanda.”
The Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony is an opportunity to publicly thank the conservationists closest to protecting these great apes.
In 2009, The Gorilla Organization’s Rwanda Programme Manager Emmanuel was invited to name one of the gorillas.
In 2009, the UN Year of the Gorilla, The Gorilla Organization’s Executive Director Jillian Miller and Ian Redmond O.B.E. (Ambassador for Year of the Gorilla and now Chairman of TGO) were invited to take part in the gorilla naming ceremony. Jillian’s gorilla was named ‘Everlasting’. Ian’s gorilla was named Umuganda meaning ‘working together.’ You can watch Ian Redmond’s UN Year of the Gorilla speech at Kwita Izina here.
Putting on the traditional costume and being part of the show sounded great fun!
Audience participation is not just reserved for the celebrities: everyone was handed a sheet showing photos of the new baby gorillas, so we could write down the new names as they were read out.
“It’s a bit like playing bingo!” Jillian joked.
The Kinyrwanda gorilla name ‘Ubukerarugendo’ translates as ‘the early travellers – who woke up early to take a trip.’ “You could say this is the first word for tourism and represents the importance of tourism in Rwanda” said the Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization.
What is Kwita Izina?
The Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony is an idea based on the Rwandese tradition of inviting the community to name a newborn child. In Rwanda, it is customary to delay naming a child until some of its characteristics are known. (If you look through some of the names of the 161 gorillas named since Kwita Izina started, many give an insight into the individual gorillas’ temperament and family history). The community join together and party to celebrate this new life.
After the gorilla naming ceremony, at Hotel Muhabura (‘the guide’ in English) in Musanze – made famous by the late Dian Fossey – we had a chance to meet Rosette Rugamba, the creator of this must-attend conservation and tourism event.
I asked Rosette her view on the international success of Kwita Izina?
“When we started this event we had a big vision: to make sure that gorillas continue to be recognised but also to help, in a big way, to change the image of Rwanda. As much as we are honoured to be the custodians of these wonderful creatures, these animals belong to the whole world. That is such a huge responsibility.
So we created a public event. The world needs to watch over us to make sure that we’re making this happen and to celebrate the birth of the gorillas. We continue to be held accountable and the international community realises they have a role in the success of gorilla conservation too.
There was always a concern that tourism might have a bad effect on conservation but it’s proven that responsible tourism can actually contribute to conservation.
Nine years after the creation of Kwita Izina, I think we have come a long way in achieving our objectives. The government is still committed, and has been right from the start.
This is the format of an event that brings in everybody. When we held the first Kwita Izina, 94 nationalities had come to trek the gorillas in Rwanda. Now, I think you could say the whole world has been: someone from every country has trekked the gorillas in Rwanda. Gorillas are symbolic creatures and Rwanda is just lucky.
“I look forward to next year” said Rosette, “10 years of Kwita Izina – a decade!”
For a premium, visitors to Musanze’s Hotel Muhabura can now stay in cottage number 12, where Dian Fossey regularly stayed on her visits down from the mountains. Dian Fossey’s cottage has been maintained to ‘honour a life dedicated to gorilla conservation.’
If you’d like to support the work of The Gorilla Organization, please click here.
Would you like to attend Kwita Izina? Would you like to trek the Mountain Gorillas?
If you’re travelling to Rwanda at the time of Kwita Izina, you are invited to attend the event. Invitations need to be issued in advance and the date does change from year to year so you are advised to check the Kwita Izina website or contact me directly. This would be the perfect time for you to trek the mountain gorillas yourself! Contact the Muzungu for more information on buying gorilla trekking permits in Rwanda or trekking the Mountain Gorillas in Uganda.