“Security will be tight – His Excellency will be there.”
“The pope or the president?” I asked rather facetiously.
“Are you in Uganda!?” The official from the Rwandan Development Board retorted, a Canadian twang to her thoroughly African exclamation. “In Rwanda, ‘His Excellency’ always means the president.”
That was me told. But I had travelled to Rwanda unprepared for either of Their Excellencies to make an appearance. I had expected the event in question to be a low-key celebration of the country’s venerated mountain gorillas. However, the 11th edition of Kwita Izina, Rwanda’s annual naming ceremony for newborn gorillas, was anything but low key.
A crowd of nearly 10,000 watched as the nation named the newest additions to the 19 gorilla families of the Volcanoes National Park. As I saw the emotion burst from Rwandan faces, it became clear that Kwita Izina was not just a celebration of conservation and environmentalism, but a celebration of a new, reborn Rwanda. A Rwanda where wildlife is protected, human life is valued and people can come together to celebrate their shared identity.
For the threat of extinction – both to humans and animals – is an issue that remains fresh in the Rwandan psyche, with the country’s notorious genocide barely old enough to be considered history. This 100-day frenzy of blood, hatred and fear left the nation one million citizens short and with horrifying, soul-searching questions that may never truly be answered.
Aged five, I had watched in horror as the Western media had finally began to show the true extent of the bloodshed. But what had escaped exposure was the impact upon the country’s four-legged creatures. Whilst images of grotesque machete-butchered bodies littering the streets had burned themselves into my young mind, I never once thought to consider the repercussions of total anarchy on the nation’s wildlife. This collapse in governance left Rwanda a barren land – without lions or rhinos, and home to an increasingly fragile population of mountain gorillas.
A rebirth was required; a new society had to rise from these crimson-stained ashes. Old prejudices and labels were cast aside to make room for a more inclusive, more sustainable and more equal society. Amongst the ideals of this new order, the conservation of Rwanda’s fragile ecosystem became a core tenet. Now, the Rwandan national identity incorporates a respect for wildlife, particularly the iconic gorillas, whilst sharing the revenues from ecotourism has all but eliminated the human-wildlife conflict of the past.
And as I heard the name ‘Gasizi’ announced by one of the ceremony’s esteemed gorilla-baby surrogates, this bright future became more tangible, more personal. 24 hours earlier, I had walked amongst the 34 gorillas of the ‘Pablo’ family. Eating, playing and tumbling through the lush vegetation that clings to the slopes of Virunga Massif, the family had been completely unconcerned by my presence. Gasizi – then still nameless – had clung to his mother’s back as his wide, curious eyes searched my unfamiliar, pale face.
Now, I had a name to put to those black, innocent orbs, to accompany the incredible memories that I would never forget. And hopefully, it was a name that would lead to more names – and the next chapter in Rwanda’s remarkable recovery story.