Gorillas are the most watched animals in Rwanda. Thousands of tourists from all over the world come to visit them.
It was only during covid-19, that the ceremony was conducted virtually.
Some of the celebrities who have visited the gorillas, include billionaire philanthropists Howard Buffett, Bill Gates and his family, former US President Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Film Director Seagourney Weaver, and actress Natalie Portman to name a few.
The visits generate huge sums of money to the national treasury.
It is because of the cultural and financial role that gorillas play in Rwandan society that government 20 years ago, through then the Office of Tourism and National Park (ORTPN), began glorifying gorillas with a custom-made version of Rwanda’s cherished ceremony, Kwita Izina.
Kwita Izina is one of the most rejoiced moments in Rwandan culture.
It brings together relatives, friends and strangers. Rwandans attribute great value and significance to a person’s name.
There is a Kinyarwanda saying: Izina niryo muntu, literally means that the name justifies the personality.
Before the official Kwita Izina ceremonies began, gorillas were exposed to severe threats and their lives were constantly at risk. Most of them were abducted and sold or killed by poachers for their meat.
Today, a number of international organisations and donors are contributing substantial human and financial resources to gorilla conservation.
Kwita Izina ceremony was designed to promote and cerebrate success in gorilla conservation, peace, security and raise awareness that Rwanda is a unique tourism destination that gives any tourist lifetime memories.
Dr. Dian Fossey, a famous global female scientist is fondly remembered for her devotion to studying and protecting the mountain gorillas of Africa.
She loved the gorillas and by imitating their behaviours and vocalisations, she gained their trust.
In 1970, an adult male gorilla she named “Peanuts” reached out to touch her hand.
She most likely is the first person to have given names to gorillas. Dian initially set up camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but moved to Rwanda in the 1960’s due to political turmoil there.
Her experience in Rwanda was challenging, but successful. It was a huge responsibility to protect the most endangered of the great apes. She had a difficult time fighting with poachers, who eventually killed her on December 26, 1985. Her murderers have never been known to date.
Dian’s biography notes that since she was a little girl she wanted to study gorilla ecology, demography and social organisation. When she arrived in Africa, she realised that in order to study gorilla ecology she needed the gorillas to get used to her presence so that she could study them up-close, and individually.
Dian’s extensive research on the mountain gorillas has made them one of the most popular wild animals on earth. In honour of her work and contribution to Rwanda, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International was founded after her death.
The organisation closely monitors several groups of mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans.
Staff at the Karisoke Research Centre visit the mountain gorilla groups daily and report on their activities, as well as conduct anti-poaching patrols. Gorilla groups designated for eco-tourism are also regularly monitored. The Rwandan government supports all the above efforts in order to protect and conserve the mountain gorillas.
As a result, in 2005, the ORPTN officially unveiled the Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony, demonstrating to the local and international communities that conservation is highly regarded. The theme of the ceremony was to “ensure the future of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.”
Naming the endangered mountain gorillas is a symbol of Rwanda’s commitment to ecotourism and environmental protection. The names given to the gorillas help in the close monitoring of each one.
Although the gorilla naming ceremony has evolved into an international event, it was initially performed only for the ORTPN, its partners and field staff.
Since the ceremony appealed to many Rwandans and foreigners, ORTPN decided to make it a national brand. The UN also recognizes the event to raise awareness on the protection of mountain gorillas and their habitat.
In 2006, the ceremony was even more exciting, themed: “Recognise the role of the international tourists who selected Rwanda as a destination.”
Every year, the naming ceremony gets better and more thrilling. More and more gorillas have been named during a ritual that is sure to continue for years to come.
At every ceremony, all those who have contributed to wildlife welfare and its conservation are celebrated; especially those who have contributed to the protection and conservation of the mountain gorillas.
The gorilla naming campaign is aimed at ensuring the future of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, and provides an opportunity to all those who care about the gorillas to contribute to this effort.
The celebration is akin to that of naming a newborn baby in the family. Back in time, the birth of a baby symbolised the replacement of an ancestor. There are many rituals performed when a baby is born, but some have been dropped as a result of the influence of modernity. Similar rituals are performed during the gorilla naming ceremony.
It is a tradition in Rwanda to treasure the birth and life of a child. In regard to that, several rituals are performed both before and after the birth of a baby up to the day he or she is given a name.
Pregnant women are well taken care of and so are the expectant gorillas. Expectant mothers are assured that all their wishes will be granted.
A few years back, the death rate at birth was very high so each baby who reached the naming ceremony was considered a family treasure.
If a baby gorilla in Rwanda does not die at birth and reaches the naming ceremony it is considered a national treasure.
When a baby boy was born, the placenta was buried and a strong tree planted on top of the grave to signify power. For a girl, the placenta was buried and a beautiful tree with a sweet aroma was planted on top of the grave to signify beauty.
These rituals were followed by naming the baby after the eighth day after birth. In traditional Rwanda, a baby boy took on the father’s name.
The naming ceremony is preceded by other ritual performances from the first day of birth of the new baby. The most significant part of the naming ritual is the Kurya ubunnyano (baby stool).
To perform this ritual, the entire family – from relatives to neighbours and close friends go to the bush and clear a portion.
Young boys dig the portion that has already been prepared and make it ready for sowing seeds, using Inkoon – an indigenous hoe.
Girls then follow and sow the seeds. Most seeds included: millet, pumpkins and vegetables, especially Isogi – a sour vegetable commonly eaten in rural areas with beans.
Meanwhile the woman’s mother-in-law or the traditional doctor – usually an old lady would go to the field and splash water from a calabash on to the children, saying “stop digging and go home it is raining.”
The children would then return from the field, wash their hands and sit on mats in a circle. Each one would be served beans, mixed and ground together with vegetables and placed on banana leaves laid on the winnower.
The children would also be given fresh milk or yoghurt and Umutsima (millet or sorghum posho).
Posho, also called sima or ugali, is a staple starch component of many African meals, especially in southern and East Africa. It is generally made from maize flour, millet or sorghum mixed in boiling water. It varies in consistency from porridge to a dough-like substance.
So, the meal during the Kwita Izina is called Kurya ubunnyano. After eating and drinking, children are not allowed to wash their hands. Instead, they rub their hands on the breasts of the baby’s mother as they say, “May you bear more children both girls and boys.”
After this phase, they are allowed to sit and each is given a chance to suggest a name for the new baby. Since the baby’s parents usually have the name picked before the ceremony, sometimes one of the children would suggest the same name as chosen by the parents.
After the naming, no one would leave before the new baby defecated or urinated. If the baby took long, the mother would give him or her drops of tobacco leaves to induce puking or vomiting. Traditionally, it was believed that leaving before the baby excreted would be a bad omen, meaning that the newborn would die.
During the whole process, everyone would dance, drink and some gave speeches. During the gorilla naming (Kwita Izina), the whole process above is imitated and takes hours because it involves speeches and naming more than one baby gorilla.
The national ballet (troupe) performs dances and the whole day is filled with thrilling moments. This naming ceremony is still practiced by many Rwandans today, especially in rural areas.
However, some do not go through the whole process, especially after the coming of Christianity. Most Christians do not give the ceremony significance, as it is considered an ancient tradition that is rather unchristian.
The gorilla naming ceremony usually takes place in the first days of June at Kinini, a tourist resort in a magnificent forest of tall eucalyptus trees. Kinini is situated at the foot of the volcanic mountains in the Northern Province – the home of gorillas.
Those who attend, go dressed in traditional outfits. Even foreigners wear the traditional dress. Traditional instruments are played to set the mood right. Beautiful Rwandan women in traditional attire swing their attractive bodies to the sound of drum beats.
Intore warriors thunderously thump their feet as they jump high, rhythmically throwing their heads sideways to form a circle. The crowd claps in applause.
The ceremony gets even more exciting when those chosen to name the baby gorillas come out of a beautiful hut, built like a king’s palace.
This is the most exciting moment of the ceremony. Those chosen to name the gorillas are escorted by a troupe accompanying them to the naming stage. All the while, sounds of cattle horns and the roaring ballads of popular poets can be heard.
It is a privilege to be chosen to name the gorillas. Some names given to the baby gorillas are so expressive, the entire crowd cheers when they are announced.
Children from surrounding villages suggest names. Some examples include: Kunga, (peacemaker), Izuba (sun), Isoni (shy), Ubufatanye (cooperation), Kubana (living together), Icyerekezo (vision), Inkundwa (loved), Itsinzi (victory), and many others of similar nature.
In 2005, President Paul Kagame and his wife, Jeannette Kagame, took part in naming the gorillas. They named the twins born in May 2004 Byishimo (happiness) and Impano (gift).
The Kurya ubunnyano ritual is performed by children. Instead of removing the baby gorillas from their natural habitat high up the mountains, young children dress up in black furry costumes to represent them.
Gorillas cannot be exposed to humans and especially to such a crowd. Some of the risks include catching influenza. Rwanda has very good reason to celebrate the birth of gorillas, not only because they are a beautiful, endangered species, but also because they benefit this small, vibrant country by attracting tourists.
Animal Planet, CNN, BBC, National Geographic, Aljazeera and many other media organisations have attended some of the gorilla naming ceremonies.
Mountain gorillas are Rwanda’s number one tourist attraction. They are ambassadors that raise the profile of Rwanda, creating a positive image both at home and abroad.
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are and have always been regarded as a national treasure.