Planet of the apes

Take part in Rwanda’s annual naming ceremony of young mountain gorillas and explore the wild reserves and national parks of the dime-sized country.

Highlights: 
For centuries, newborn children in Rwanda have been named in a ceremony called Kwita Izina. Taking the idea forward, Rwanda Development Board adopted a unique conservation initiative to celebrate the birth of baby mountain gorillas born in the wild.

Think Africa and herds of big game roaming the plains and grasslands of a vast continent come to mind. Wedged between the mighty Kenya, Tanzania and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), one wonders what a dime-sized country like Rwanda can offer. Yet, it stands tall in wildlife circles as one of the few places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Thanks to an invite to attend the gorilla-naming ceremony Kwita Izina, we found ourselves on a direct flight from Mumbai to Kigali.

So it begins

It was an early morning touchdown, yet Jullesse, the cheery representative from Rwanda Development Board, was there to greet us and whisk us away to our hotel. En route, we got a crash course on the cultural significance of Rwanda’s biggest wildlife and conservation event. Virunga Massif, a dramatic volcano-ridden landscape of 160 sq km at the tri-junction of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda, is the last refuge of the eastern gorilla.

Strife, poaching and encroachment in the region had led to a rapid decline in their population to an all-time low of 242 in 1981. Conservation efforts spearheaded by American primatologist Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist fame) and tirelessly monitoring of gorilla families up the steep slopes all year round led to a slow revival.

For centuries, newborn children in Rwanda have been named in a ceremony called Kwita Izina. Taking the idea forward, Rwanda Development Board adopted a unique conservation initiative to celebrate the birth of baby mountain gorillas born in the wild.

Grand gathering

Since 2005, the annual naming ceremony has involved local communities and a galaxy of statesmen and conservationists from around the world chosen as celebrity namers. With few days to go for the official ceremony, we had the perfect opportunity to explore the capital city.

Our hotel, located in the diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the posh Central Business District, overlooked the high-security presidential quarters. We walked past the Gorilla Statue near the Town Hall to Kandt House Museum, the first brick building in town.

It was the home of German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt, Kigali’s founder and the country’s first resident. His statue stood in the front of the building, which earlier housed the Museum of Natural History. 

Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys. We trawled local milk bars, mural walks, Gaddafi Mosque and the Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo, Kigali’s hip neighbourhood. The next morning, we left early for Volcanoes National Park for our first brush with gorillas. Women dressed in colourful kitenge carried headloads of sweet potato, banana and cassava to reach local markets by dawn, while men pedalled furiously balancing bundles of sugarcane or stacks of carrots and charcoal. The mist-covered volcanoes towered above the hilly landscape. Five of the eight volcanoes – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Bisoke and Karisimbi – were in Rwanda. Had we known that 15 minutes later, we would be assigned to Karisimbi, the tallest of them at 4,500 m, we wouldn’t have been smiling!

Soon, we disembarked at the busy park headquarters at Kinigi near Musanze. Only 12 gorilla trekking routes were open to tourists and each trekking group had eight members. We got the tough Isimbi trail led by the petite young guide Jolie. Briefing us on gorilla behaviour and language, she explained the various grunts, calls and gestures andwarned us to approach them submissively. “Crouch low and repeat ‘Mae-mmhh’, which means ‘we come in peace’. We practised like kindergarten children. Gaiters (leg guards), rain jackets and gloves were offered on hire, but we smugly looked at our shoes and rain jackets, and politely declined.

Driving an hour past bustling markets, small villages and waving kids, we reached the edge of a forest where porters in blue uniforms awaited us with walking sticks carved with gorilla figures. The wise among us took porters for their backpacks and camera equipment. Little did we know what awaited us on Umusumba Trekking Trail. The hike got progressively tougher as we started to climb — a slippery path of bamboo leaves, a tangle of vines to ensnare you, bamboo stumps waiting to trip you, squelchy pathways, dense undergrowth and steep inclines lined with stinging nettle. Ah, that’s why the gloves, we winced and cursed! After plodding for nearly two hours, we reached our trackers and made a final insane climb.

Lolling on a bed of nettles in a clearing was the Isimbi family. Watching over the 10 juveniles and eight females was the mighty Muturengere, a 200 kilogram, 1.9m-tall Silverback — adult males get a distinct silvery band on the back on maturity. The furry little gorillas played around with wild fruits, before ambling towards us in curiosity. We bleated our pacifist calls repeatedly until Muturengere grunted his approval. An hour elapsed in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, Muturengere got up, walked past us metres away, raised his head and disappeared into the bush. The mist rolled in and we descended the lower slopes of Karisimbi where we spotted a Golden Monkey.


‘Kwita Izina’ or naming ceremony. Photos by authors

We didn’t have time for the longer chimpanzee hike and returned to Kinigi in time for Kwita Izina 2018, where 23 gorillas born in the past year were being named. Against a stunning backdrop of the volcanoes was a giant gorilla frame made of bamboo with an infant riding on its back. Headlining the event was South African pop duo Mafikizolo, who was also part of the celebrity namers that included sportsmen, ambassadors, businessmen and environmentalists. Life came full circle as the unnamed newborns from the Isimbi family we spotted earlier, got beautiful names in the Kinyarawanda dialect – Umuseke (dawn) and Izahabu (gold), named by female Arsenal star Alexandra Virina Scott. Fellow Arsenal legend and Cameroonian footballer Laureno Bisan Etamé-Mayer named his lil gorilla from the Kwitonda family Ikipe (team).

Pop icon Akon couldn’t make it but his business partner and Malian philanthropist Samba Bathily named his newborn gorilla from the Igisha family Ineza (mercy), which he believed was needed for Africa and the world. Senegalese NBA star Amadou Gallo Fall had launched junior NBA in Kigali and his focus was on using the power of sport and values of the game. He named his baby gorilla from Musilikare family Kwiyongera (to increase). Each namer had a personal angle. Dr Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisa, programme chief at UNESCO, had been visiting Rwanda for the past 11 years and confessed each time she saw a new Rwanda because it was moving so fast!

The geographic area of 686 biosphere reserves in 122 countries was home to over 256 million people, so her name for the Igisha family newborn was Imbaga (crowd). UN Special Envoy, President and CEO of the Asia Society and ex-Vice Chairman of the World Economic Forum Josette Sheeran named her baby gorilla from the Pablo family Umuryango (family). English celebrity chef, food writer and eco-campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, also VP of Flora & Fauna International UK, had met the newborn of the Hirwa family just a week earlier and decided to name it Amatungo (plentiful livestock), the bedrock of Rwandan culture. 

The ceremony gave way to a moving environment-themed performance by a dance troupe. As world leaders applauded and the world cheered on, it was amazing to see how a tiny country was leading the way as a beacon for conservation. The genius of Rwanda was that it had created an international event out of a domestic population census! 

 

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