“My, ooh my…!” Filled with wonder and admiration, Judith Howard, who I later learn is a British tourist, stands in the crowd, next to me, watching as the female dancers of the Rwanda National Ballet, dressed in orange silky fabrics glide onto the stage, a green court, part of the Kinigi Mountain flats, Northern Province of Rwanda where we are gathered today. They (dancers)with quick, light, softly audible steps, are conveyed onto the stage by the powerful patters of Kinyarwanda percussions along with the singers, faint at first, as if from a neighbouring village, in call-response measured tones but whose vitality fast gathers energy and exuberance.
The male dancers then with vigour ‘invade’ the stage; in impeccable rhythmic precision, their movements evolving from squat, low-weighted slides, hitch-kicks, flat-stamping, skips and runs; and, for women, torsos rippling fluidly, arms churning and wind-milling and necks rolling feverishly as if made of rubber, feet sprightly twinkling. “My, my…!”, Judith exclaims again in awe, this time drowned in the trinity of dance, drumming and dance. “Amazing!” She declares, as the drummers, with their mallets forming another optical show, now change the tempo and shift the dancers’ patterns.
Out of nowhere, male dancers jump high, and as they hit ground, the drumming suddenly dies, the choir sings a three part-harmony of about 15 seconds and then the dancing and drumming return with almost earthquake proportions. It is a respite of sheer stamina!
I could go on and on and on… But we are gathered here today for a traditional Kinyarwanda initiation rite; KwitaIzina. The Gorilla Naming Ceremony. And we are here for the ninth of its kind to name twelve baby gorillas born in the past year and one family that formed recently.
So after brief speeches, as the pearly grey skies kiss the neighbouring mountains of Karisimbi, Kinigi, Bisoke and Sabyinyo, the namers (a parlance for KwitaIzina) step onto the naming dais, impeccably dressed in golden flowing silky fabrics(Imishanana for women and Imyitero for men), draped with pictures of young gorillas, all in white shirts, black-and-white beads, the men are carrying ornamented walking sticks washed in Rwanda national colours. The real rite now begins. Every namer has a reason for the name he/she chooses. All names Rwandan, are rooted in the traits of the baby gorillas, aspirations, history, conservation efforts, achievements and hope of the Rwandan people. The namers themselves are drawn from a pantheon of highly regarded conservationists, showbiz personalities and outstanding professionals in other fields of endeavor from around the world.
These include the Secretary General of the United Nations World TourismOrganisation, Mr Rifai Taleb, who names his baby gorilla Ubukerarugendo, (Tourism).Dr. Paula Kahumbu, Executive Director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust and Wildlife Direct, and chairman of the Friends of Nairobi National Park names her gorilla Ikigega (store of treasures), Mr Cyprian Chitundu, Managing Director of ZESCO Limited, Zambia gives a name to Inyungura (Addition) and Ms. Lieke van Lexmond, a Dutch model, actress and TV presenter and Mr. Mark van Eeuwin, Dutch actor, TV and film producer name another gorilla Icyamamare (Rising Star) while EkweEthuro, Speaker of the Senate, Kenya, chooses Ingamiya (Camel) for the baby. And you, my friend, would be far more amused with your physical presence, drinking in every spontaneous spectacle with an eye of feeling and delight, than in listening to, nay, reading my reflections.
For as the ceremonial naming progresses, children and adults clad in gorilla-like costumes playfully roll onto the stage, adults in a hype of chest-thumping, and infants in sportive poise tease each other. It is beauty, romance and a mantle of glamour all served on one plate. Merry! The foreign visitors that number to over 460 from six continents; Africa, Asia, Europe, America and Australia are overwhelmed. And you can imagine how the over 100 photojournalists are feasting on the whole enchilada. Ok! The naming continues. Jeffrey David Sachs, American Economist and Director of Earth Institute at Columbia University names Icyororo (Fertile) and Mr. Ramsey TokunboNouahJr, Nigerian award winning actor gives Ganza (Always Dominating). Others are Imigano (Bamboo) given by Pinto Ignatius from India, Iraje (New Comer) by Doug Cress from UNEP, Fasha (Help) by Mukeshimana Louise, Agasore (Little Man) by H.E. Kazuya Ogawa, Ambassador of Japan to Rwanda and the newly formed family named Karisimbi (Natural Beauty) was given by Isaiah Washington IV, an American actor.
More than just gorilla naming
The KwitaIzina, that has come to be celebrated annually sends very powerful signals among the nature enthusiasts. The Prime Minister Dr Damien Pierre Habumuremyi says the event showsthe great value the people of Rwanda attach to the mountain gorillas and conservation efforts. “Considering this year’s theme, ‘Celebrating Nature, Empowering Communities’, there is a clear demonstration that underpins our belief that conservation is integral to our development agenda,” the Dr Habumuremyi tells the gathering. Dr. Habumuremyi tells the guests that the government of Rwanda ploughs back 5% of revenues generated from the national parks to the surrounding communities in 12 districts, whereof 280 projects, including 121 classrooms, medical facilities, water tanks, housing, support to agriculture and cooperatives have all been enhanced. In total, $2.5m has been given back to communities. He pledges more support to the production and marketing of local products—handicrafts, honey, milk and other produce.
Working more with the private sector, strengthening the Virunga Trans-boundary Conservation Program, exploring more opportunities for investment and encouraging domestic tourism are some of the issues that the Prime Minister accentuates. And the investments are coming in. The RDB Chief Executive Officer,Ms Clare Akamanzi, notes that the confidence demonstrated by such investors as Mariott and Sheraton Hotels are a clear indication that the future of the hospitality industry in Rwanda is even brighter. Looking back at the past, the future is surely brighter. In 2005, Tourism receipts totaled to only US $26m compared to $282 million in 2012 from about one million visitors.
The RDB-Head Tourism and Conservation Ms Rica Rwigamba says all these milestones have been registered because of the ardent support from the local communities, some of who are former poachers but are passionate conservationists and partners today. She notes that KwitaIzina is a major boost to the industry. “KwitaIzina has created and nuturedconfidence here at home and among the international travelers. The hundreds of international visitors attending the carnival act as ambassadors when they go back to their respective countries,” she assures. A Nigerian businessman, Ayodeji Balogun, who attends the festival sums it in no uncertain terms; “KwitaIzina shows the convergence of art and culture, environment conservation and business. It celebrates Rwanda, Musanze and Kinigi Hills.”