Kinigi Musanze is a famous name amongst wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists for some specific reasons. But one of the major reasons is the Mountain Gorillas, whose natural habitat is the Volcanoes National Park. What I learnt about the Mountain Gorillas are quite mindboggling (weighing over 200kilos and can eat 30% food content of their weight daily and the big one; they have 98% of human genes.) With such tremendous strength, I discovered from several conversations that Gorillas are quite friendly and humble; if you know the rules of engagement. And one rule I would never forget, don’t turn your back while a Gorilla is in front of you. But first things first. What is Kwita Izina?
Kwita Izina is a time to celebrate Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas. For the past 15 years, baby Gorillas have been publicly named at this event; globally known as Kwita Izina. The globally recognised Kwita Izina has its origins from traditional Rwandan celebrations held for the birth of every child. I was made to understand that this event appreciates and recognises the worth of every new born Gorilla in a public naming ceremony that is uniquely Rwandan. And this year’s cultural event was no different as events and activities commenced a week prior to the Gorilla Naming Ceremony, which was held on Saturday, the 5th of September, 2015.
According to Rwanda Development Board’s website “Naming a newly born baby has been part of Rwandan culture and tradition for centuries. Given the remarkable efforts by the Government of Rwanda, through the Rwanda Development Board, and in collaboration with various conservation partners and local communities, to actively protect the Mountain Gorillas and their habitat, the old naming century’s tradition was modelled on these species to get the national brand known as “Kwita Izina”.
Names attributed to the gorillas play a significant role in the on-going programme of monitoring each individual gorilla in their families and habitat. Kwita Izina, a uniquely Rwandan event, was introduced in 2005 with the aim of creating awareness of conservation efforts for the endangered mountain gorilla.
For three decades prior to the first official gorilla naming ceremony, the naming of baby gorillas was carried out with little awareness amidst the public by the rangers and researchers that closely monitor these unique animals on a daily basis.
Kwita Izina has been attended by thousands of international, regional and local participants over the recent years. The Government of Rwanda and conservation partners have donated substantial resources to gorilla conservation and continue to do so. Each year new born gorilla babies are celebrated in an exciting event at the foothills of the Virunga Mountains.”
Tuesday, September 1
5.39am and we were off for an early morning drive for a Safari at the Akagera National Park commenced. Crisscrossing hills and landscapes, towns with streets filled with students off to school, passing through towns with shops, farms; farmers on their bicycles laden with enticing bunch of humungous bananas! With nationals from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Holland, Russia (the bus was more like a United Nations bus with people speaking different languages or speaking English with various accents). We arrived at Akagera at 7.29am and we had to crisscross bends and turns until we arrived at the gate entrance. Akagera National Park was formed in 1934. This park borders Tanzania to the East, Uganda to the North, DR Congo to the West and Burundi to the South.
The team was given a brief history of the park by Mr Innocent Ndagijimana-a Captain Tour Guide. While he spoke I came across a picture of the King of Belgium, who visited this park in 1932 and I saw the skeletal remains of a 6metre, 1000kilo Nile Crocodile.
The team also had a meeting with the Park Manager-Mr Jes Guner who gave an extensive brief of what Akagera is about. During the Safari, Impalas, Elephants, Buffalos, Masai Giraffes whose hearts are more than 10kilogrammes (6 were given as gifts from the Kenyan government in 1986 but now the giraffes are over 100), Zebras, exotic birds (just to name a few) were seen.
Somewhere in the Akagera National Park were the seven lions brought in from South Africa (five females from Phinda and two males from Tembe). But we did not see them. After the Safari and as the bus crisscrossed the neighbouring villages in the Karangazi sector in Nyagatare district Eastern Province, students returning from schools waved ceaselessly (I noticed that people in the hinterlands of Rwanda love greeting and waving. It is a norm in the hinterlands of Rwanda.)
Wednesday, September 2
Still in line with the beehive of activities; by 8.15am; the media team was on the way to Musanze which is in the Northern part of Rwanda; close to the Ugandan border. I have always wondered why my Rwandan friends and those who reside in Kigali; always say “I’m going up country”. I figured it out; as we sneaked through hills, hills and more hills and through bends. Passing through Remere, Rusenge, Mukinga and Rwaza towns and watching as women and their daughters worked on their farms (this is synonymous with Africa but I wondered where the men were). During the journey, I got to learn from my Kenyan friends (Alex Kabusu, Philip Murutu and Nelson Aruya) from Citizen TV, that Kenyans learnt Nigerian pidgin from reading Chinua Achebe’s “A man of the people” in secondary schools. The team journeyed through hills and more hills to Musanze and as we approached; I realised it was becoming really cold.
We arrived in Musanze to view a school project that was developed through the Tourism Revenue Sharing Scheme. A school library with the support of Dian Fosse Foundation was set-up for easy public access to inform and educate on conservation and responsible tourism. In a nutshell, 5% of revenue from tourism is ploughed back into the community and the transformation is as glaring as the sun. Lives improve; children have more time to concentrate on their studies rather than trek several kilometres to another school. And as customary with almost every Rwandan community gathering, there were edibles to go around and trust children; they were in their elements talking and I spotted three girls sharing maize with no qualms! In an interview with Mr Prosper Uwingeli; the Chief Park Warden, he explained the essence of the library and its effects on the students and the community.
Thursday, September 3
A high-level gathering of who is who in world tourism, wildlife conservationists, policy makers, tour operators, policymakers, tourism business and community stakeholders was held at Serena Hotels Kigali. The forum titled “A Conversation on Conservation: Conserving now and for the future” discussed the successes, challenges and possible solutions within the Conservation sphere of wildlife, maintaining the parks and Gorillas, bio-diversity, laws politics and infrastructure bordering on conservation to name a few. The panelists were Ambassador Yamina Karitanyi, Chief Tourism Officer (Rwanda Development Board), Dr. Allan Karlsson, Senior Conservation Advisor, WWF Sweden; Eugene Rutagarama, Managing Partner; Emeraude Kivu Resort; Daudi Sumba, Vice President for Programme Design and Government Relations, African Wildlife Foundation.
Rwanda's Prime Minister, Anastase Murekezi who graced the event stated that “more than 80% of visitors to Rwanda come for tourism.....the forum was coming at an appropriate time; just 2days to Kwita Izina”.
The business to business gathering was quite interesting as people had the opportunity to interact with global players in the tourism business and from a Nigerian angle; Nigerian tourism operators were present. A late night trip was made to Musanze for the Gorilla trek on Friday. Before our arrival, a stop over was made in a town called Nyirangarama
Friday, September 4
Musanze. We arrived at the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi at about 7.20am. Our tour guide Mr Placide N. Nkurunziza revealed some interesting facts about the Mountain Gorillas who are only found in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. The trek to find the Mountain Gorillas which began at 9am can be left experienced, climbing levels and layers of mountain steps and rocks and resting at intervals and with porters who carried the equipment; and also meeting other visitors on the way. We got to the entrance to the Gorilla Park and we were given brief on what we were to expect. The journey from the entrance to where the Mountain Gorillas were took about 1-2 hours. And we trekked to about 3,000 feet above sea level to see Mountain Gorillas between the slopes of Bisoke and Karisimbi and the Gorillas were a sight to behold. You don’t encounter such and not have some pictures or video to show for it.
Fears and doubts were dispelled by Placide N. Nkurunziza in an interview; who said that the mountain Gorillas have been receiving over 25,000 visitors in the last 5years. And who before the epic trek began, had informed the team about the idiosyncrasies of Mountain Gorillas. After all said and done, we came, saw and were still able to walk back to earth (touching ground at 1.21pm) and Gorilla Trekking certificates were presented to each member of this particular team. A lifetime experience is the first sentence on the certificate. I concur.
Saturday September 5
Kinigi. Kwita Izina day and residents, tourists and foreigners thronged the venue for the Gorilla Naming Ceremony and security was airtight. People might wonder, why so much pomp about Gorillas? Gorillas are not your average animal. And as earlier stated; Mountain Gorillas (in particular) are only found in three countries. After the music, dance and speeches by RDB’s Amb Yamina, the Mayor of Musanze and President Kagame; the specially invited guests who were to name the baby Gorillas mounted the stage and the naming commenced.
Notable guests who named the 24 baby gorillas included Dr. Hans J. Heuer; the MD of Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel, Manager of Phinda Reserve that donated lions to Akagera National Park, Simon Naylor, Pioneer of conservation work with mountain gorillas and Yale University Professor, Amy Vedder, World Wide Fund For Nature and Senior Conservation Advisor, Dr. Allan Karlsson, Senior Fellow, Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, U.S. Department of State, Dr. Janaki Alavalapati, Rwandan Minister of Trade and Industry, Francois Kanimba. Nigeria’s Wakanow founder; Mr Ralph Tamino. Beside him; Rwandan singer, Jeanne Butera Knowless, Managing Director of Bralirwa, Jonathan Hall, Son of the founder of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Rwanda, Frank Keesling, and the Founder and CEO of the African Leadership Group, Fred Swaniker and Isaac Fokuor.
Attending this event for the first time; it was crystal-clear that one was bound to encounter global figures in travel, tourism and wildlife conservation and one could not miss Nigeria’s Ikechi Ujo; the founder of Akwaaba. Also, the most authoritative voice in travel writing; Prof Wolfgang H. Thome. A man who told me, he left his PhD to begin travelling and writing over 40years ago.
Some say Kwita Izina is a ceremony. With all candour, it is beyond that. It has become a global event. And ruminating upon what I witnessed; I can not but wonder how a traditional event with drums et al in Kinigi sector, Musanze District (a very cold place, where I couldn’t find a building with an air conditioner), has evolved into a global event, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, who braved the cold weather. The economy ramifications to the kinigi community are enormous. Without any iota of doubt, Kinigi would have new structures when one visits to attend Kwita Izina in 2016.
Dolapo Aina, Kigali, Rwanda.
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Credits:Lydia Limbe for the Buffalos. Dolapo Aina