The majestic mountain gorillas are so revered in Rwanda that the arrival of newborns is a momentous occasion with a lot of celebration and fanfare. New babies are welcomed each year with an elaborate, week-long ceremony called Kwita Izina, which means ‘naming’ in Kinyarwanda. The ceremony is beautifully and aptly modelled after the centuries-old tradition of Rwandans naming newborn babies in the presence of family and friends and culminates with honoured guests choosing names for the new arrivals.
The Kwita Izina ceremony is an initiative of the country’s tourism board and has been held each year since 2005. The event was created as a means of bringing both local and international attention to the endangered mountain gorillas and the importance of protecting them and preserving their natural habitats in Volcanoes National Park. The gorilla conservation program, first started in 1967 by the legendary conservationist and gorilla advocate Dian Fossey, has become a global model for what sustainable tourism can accomplish by raising both awareness and funds to help protect the gorillas, whose numbers now exceed 1,000 after many years of careful management and conservation.
In addition to the highly anticipated naming ceremony, the event also includes workshops, conferences, and cultural shows, all set with the incredible Virunga Mountains as a backdrop. The ceremony itself takes place on an incredible 5-metre-high stage built from bamboo in the likeness of a silverback gorilla. Kwita Izina is also an opportunity to thank the many people involved in protecting Rwanda’s mountain gorillas and their natural home including veterinarians, park rangers, trackers, research partners, conservationists, donors, and the communities who live around the national park.
A wide variety of people from many different industries are given the great honour each year of naming the gorillas. For example, in 2023, this honour went to internationally famous celebrities like actors Idris Elba and Danai Gurira, the French-Nigerian singer Asa, comedian Kevin Hart, and former Arsenal player Sol Campbell. Business leaders, ambassadors, authors, photographers, United Nations representatives, and even Rwandan school children have also been chosen. Additionally, the honour is also given to founders of progressive Rwandan businesses like Ineza Umuhoza Grace, the CEO of Green Protector and to inspirational local figures like Queen Kalimpinya, a rally car driver and gender equity advocate.
Other notable honorees from previous years include the then Prince of Wales whose gorilla newborn was named Ubwuzuzanye which means ‘harmony’, the naturalist Sir David Attenborough who chose the name Inshungu which means ‘blessing’, and model Naomi Campbell whose gorilla was named Intarutwa which translates to ‘excellence’. In the 19 years since the ceremony began, 397 baby gorillas have been named.
The mountain gorillas generate a large part of Rwanda’s tourism income and the country has taken many progressive measures to allow visits to the gorilla families while ensuring the conservation and protection of them and their habitat. Revenue from these visits benefits the gorillas, but they are also shared with the communities surrounding the park. In addition, many local people are employed in the park as trackers, porters, researchers, guides, and others who work in the tourism industry in the surrounding area.
Kwita Izina is one of the most important cultural events of the year in Rwanda, celebrating the country’s unshakable commitment to sustainability and responsible tourism. Rwanda’s efforts have gained international attention and acclaim and this ceremony is the annual culmination of incredible work by many people, not only to protect these gentle creatures, but also to allow them to thrive.
Kwita Izina is only open to those honored with an invitation, but the ceremony benefits so many with the funds it raises to support it. If you have a chance to visit Rwanda while the event is taking place, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you will be supporting these incredible conservation efforts in Rwanda!