In September, I had the pleasure of attending the 12th edition of Kwita Izina, Rwanda’s annual baby gorilla naming ceremony organized by the Rwanda Development Board. I’d wanted to attend Kwita Izina for years but somehow never got around to it. This year, for the first time, September found me in Rwanda so I could make this dream come true. Today, I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I experienced at Kwita Izina. But first, some background…
What is Kwita Izina?
Kwita Izina is an annual event, held every September, organized by the Rwanda Development Board to name each baby gorilla born in Rwanda over the past year.
Why the need for an annual baby gorilla naming ceremony?
Mountain gorillas, the specific type of gorilla named during Kwita Izina, occur naturally in only 3 countries across the world: Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This is the highest risk category assigned to animals in the wild. This means that mountain gorillas face a very high risk of extinction from their natural habitat. And that’s today when the mountain gorilla population numbers 880. At its lowest, in 1981, there were only 254 mountain gorillas in the world!
The Rwandan government, aided by wildlife conservation bodies, is intent on saving the mountain gorilla from extinction. Kwita Izina serves to raise awareness among local communities living near mountain gorillas, as well as in the nation as a whole, the region, and the world, of the importance of protecting mountain gorillas and their natural habitat.
Why a naming ceremony?
In Rwandan culture, it is customary to hold a naming ceremony for a baby soon after it is born. As a dear Rwandan friend explained to me recently, in a conversation about the naming of her own children (the same friend mentioned in my nail buffing and message boards posts), this usually takes the form of a big party. The guests at the party consist of close family and friends.
At the party, each guest suggests a name for the newborn. The child’s parents then withdraw to a separate place to discuss the suggested names and choose one for their baby. After these private deliberations, the child’s parents then rejoin their guests and announce the chosen name. (My friend tells me that wise parents make sure that one of the guests suggests the name the parents already want to give to their child. 😉 ) Kwita Izina is modeled on this traditional Rwandan ritual.
But…that is not the only reason for a naming ceremony. By giving each baby gorilla a name, it is easier to monitor and track it in the wild.
Where does Kwita Izina take place?
Kwita Izina takes place in the town of Kinigi in Northern Rwanda, close to the place where Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC meet. Kinigi, located at the foothills of the Volcanoes National Park, is in Musanze District about a 20-minute ride from Musanze town (formerly called Ruhengeri).
How does one get to Kinigi?
I am not sure I am the right person to give an authoritative answer to this question, but at least I can tell you how I got to Kinigi. First of all, I caught a public minibus headed to Musanze from Nyabugogo Bus Station in Kigali. I didn’t have to make a booking since buses depart every hour. The journey to Musanze cost me RWF 3000 (approximately £3.30).
I chose to spend the night in Musanze town because the program I got from Rwanda Development Board showed that Kwita Izina was scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. The Rwanda Development Board staff member who gave me my invitation specifically mentioned that I should arrive on time. I spent the night at Virunga Hotel, which I thought had good food and good service but was a little expensive for what it was.
I hear there is no public transportation from Musanze town to Kinigi, though I did hear whispers of the possibility of taking a moto, a motorcycle taxi, to get there. Luckily, I didn’t have to put that to the test and was able to hitch a ride with some Rwanda Development Board staff that happened to be headed the same way.
Who can attend Kwita Izina?
I am not sure what the case was for previous Kwita Izinas, but at this 12th edition, the event was open to the public. All you had to do if you wanted to attend was register online. (I can’t tell you more about this process because I received an invitation from Rwanda Development Board.)
So what exactly takes place at Rwanda Development Board’s Kwita Izina?
Once everyone had arrived, both guests from afar and from the local community, there was some entertainment followed by speeches. The main naming ceremony consisted of distinguished namers—local celebrities, strong proponents of conservation both from Rwanda and abroad, high achieving Rwandan students, etc.—each in turn, telling the audience which baby gorilla they would be naming, identifying the baby gorilla by its mother’s name and family group. The namer then announced their chosen name, explaining its meaning and the reason for the choice. I particularly enjoyed this part of the ceremony, especially when namers had meaningful stories behind the name they had chosen. For instance, some of the namers had known or interacted with their baby gorilla’s mother for almost 2 decades and gave names that reflected their knowledge of the mother’s history.
In 2016, 22 baby gorillas were named. The 22 namers were young and old, from Rwanda and abroad, male and female. Here is a video showing each baby gorilla that was named, the name that was given, its meaning, and the gorilla’s namer.
Should you attend Kwita Izina?
If I am honest, the hype surrounding Kwita Izina, for me, far surpassed the actual events of the day. For starters, I was surprised that the naming ceremony day events only lasted a morning, or half a day. Some of the Rwanda Development Board staff I happened to mention this to were quick to explain to me that the naming ceremony is in fact only the culmination of a 5-day series of events.
BUT…if you happen to be in Rwanda or nearby, and have a passion for nature, animals, and/or conservation, I think it’s an interesting thing to do. Musanze is beautiful. Also, I enjoyed seeing an African country rally behind a cause that one doesn’t usually hear African countries give a lot of importance to.
When does Kwita Izina take place?
Kwita Izina takes place every September. The 2016 edition took place on Friday September 2nd.
Is there anything else you should know before attending Kwita Izina?
Yes. Be sure to carry a standalone camera if you want to take pictures. If the Rwandan President will be attending Kwita Izina, as he did this year, only people with special authorization will be allowed take their phones into the venue. The security at the 12th edition of Kwita Izina was super tight!
I am glad I finally got to attend Kwita Izina. Next on my list of big Rwandan events to attend? The Pan-African Dance Festival (FESPAD).
Have you attended Kwita Izina before? If so, what did you think of it? I’d love to hear all about it in the comment section below.
Until the next time,
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