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From Idris Elba to Kevin Hart, Gorilla Naming Ceremony in Rwanda attracts celebrities, athletes, conservation heroes and thousands of locals

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The annual Kwita Izina, or Gorilla Naming Ceremony, in the village of Kinigi, gateway to the Volcanoes National Park, is a colourful affair at which Hollywood stars and famous footballers rub shoulders with local villagers as they celebrate the arrival of new members of a species once on the brink of extinction.

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Mountain gorillas, with thick black hair and weighing as much as 200kg (441lbs), are found only in small pockets of protected montane forests in three countries: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the 1980s, only 242 individuals were documented in the national park and the wider Virunga Mountains, where the three countries meet and where American primatologist Dian Fossey (whose autobiography was the basis of 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist) carried out much of her research.

That number has since risen to 1,063.

Meaning “to give a name” in Kinyarwanda, the local language, the Kwita Izina ceremony is inspired by the centuries-old Rwandan tradition of naming babies in the presence of family and friends.

“A week after the child was born, the parents would invite friends and family for the naming, the women of the house would make a one-pot dish and the men would serve local sorghum beer, and everyone would suggest a name,” explains Didier Murindwa, my driver and guide.

“Once the parents chose the name, the women would cheer and clap, a happiness sound called impundu.”

This baby gorilla, born on February 19, was named Ramba (‘Sustainable’) by Bernard Lama, former Paris Saint-Germain and French national football team goalkeeper. Photo: Visit Rwanda

Rwandans believe a carefully chosen name has special powers and is capable of determining the fate of its owner, whether they be human or mountain gorilla. The animals have become a source of national pride and naming them has become an annual event watched by thousands.

Rwanda has staged the Kwita Izina since 2005, when the country started conservation efforts in earnest. The event celebrates biodiversity and sustainability, and is preceded by a week of conferences and exhibitions on conservation and launches of community projects.

The 40,000 people who are attending this year’s edition – the 19th – include villagers who have trekked miles to be here, local and international media and tour operators, and national park staff.

And, of course, the celebrity guests; 23 gorillas born during the preceding year are to be named by 23 actors, singers, sports legends, conservation heroes, diplomats, entrepreneurs and a high-achieving local schoolgirl.

This baby gorilla was born on February 27, 2023 to mother Akarabo from the Hirwa family of mountain gorillas. It was named Ingoboka (‘Support’) by Larry Green, a board trustee at the African Wildlife Foundation. Photo: Visit Rwanda

This year’s names include Ramba (meaning “sustainable”), Gakondo (“tradition”), Ingoboka (“support”), Mukundwa (“favoured”) and Mugisha (“blessing”).

“This fosters a personal bond between the local community and the animals,” says Emmanuel Harerimana, a Volcanoes National Park guide, who adds that some of the gorillas’ fiercest defenders are former poachers.

Over the past 18 years – the event took place online during the Covid shutdown – 374 mountain gorillas have been named in Kwita Izina ceremonies by the likes of Britain’s King Charles, broadcaster and biologist Sir David Attenborough, and Chinese travel bloggers Hong Liang and Xinyu Zhang.

This year’s celebrity name-givers arrive dressed in traditional warrior robes and sandals, with beaded necklaces and carrying wooden sticks. They are seated and introduced to the crowd, their achievements flashing up on monitors.

The woven bamboo statue of a gorilla family behind the stage at the naming ceremony in Kinigi, Rwanda. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

British actor Idris Elba and wife Sabrina, Nigerian-French singer-songwriter Asa, Rwandan female rally car driver Queen Kalimpinya, former Chicago Bulls basketball player Joakim Noah, and French footballer Bernard Lama are all warmly welcomed, as is young Rwandan Ineza Umuhoza Grace, with orange braids and a winsome smile, who is the founder and CEO of The Green Protector, an NGO that engages young people in environmental protection.

The loudest applause, though, is reserved for Innocent Dusabeyuzu, who has been a Volcanoes National Park ranger since 2007 and is being recognised for his diligence and expertise in monitoring gorillas; and Elvine Ineza, a class 6 high achiever at a school in nearby Musanze city.

As each guest names their infant on the stage, an image of the gorilla and the names of the mother and its family flash across the screens.

“I just got to see an amazing family of gorillas, and because of the gorillas I got to see, I get to take the liberty of actually naming a gorilla,” says African-American actor and comedian Kevin Hart. He will keep in touch with his “child” through photos, emails and a phone to chat with her, he says.

Sol Campbell, ex-England footballer, at the star-studded gorilla baby-naming ceremony. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

Former Arsenal and England footballer Sol Campbell takes the stage to name his baby gorilla Jijuka, meaning “enlightenment”.

Idris Elba, who plays South African hero and president Nelson Mandela in 2013 biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, focuses on the host nation when he takes the stage: “Geographically, where Rwanda is situated represents the heart of Africa, and you are definitely the heart of Africa.”

Idris and Sabrina Elba, a Canadian model and activist, are naming their little guy Narame (“long life”) because his mother lost her two previous babies, so they hope that this one has better luck.

“I invite everyone to follow the journeys of the baby gorillas named today,” says Clare Akamanzi, chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board, in her speech. “Let their stories be a living testament of our commitment.”

A troupe of 180 perform traditional dances, including the Intore warrior dance. Photo: Kalpana Sunder

The Kwita Izina provides an opportunity to thank not only the vets, conservationists, rangers and trackers who look after the gorillas directly, but also those people who have learned to love the gorillas in their midst, not least because 10 per cent of all national park revenue in Rwanda is returned to the surrounding communities, to improve livelihoods.

“As we have seen in Rwanda, species conservation succeeds when local communities are placed at the heart of the conservation strategy,” says Unesco director general Audrey Azoulay.

And what’s good for the gorillas is good for tourism. According to the Rwanda Development Board, gorillas represented the best-performing tourism segment in 2022.

But “mountain gorillas represent more than a source of tourism, or adventurous entertainment”, said Jeannette Kagame, Rwanda’s first lady, as she inaugurated this year’s Kwita Izina.

“To us, our gorillas are the custodians of a nature we cherish”.

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