Kwita Izina – Africa’s number one Festival of the Gorillas

KWITA IZINA ANTE PORTAS

(Most recent visit to the Sabinyo group of which Umutungo, whom I named last year, is a member)

All over Rwanda did the large posters go up last weekend, reminding the country that the annual Festival of the Gorillas, aka Kwita Izina, is now just weeks away. This year, in its 9th edition, the annual naming of new born gorilla babies will be held on 22nd June near the headquarters of the Volcanoes National Park at Kinigi, and a series of activities will kick off on the 14th of June already, to lead up to and commemorate the annual event.

The Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department, headed by Mrs. Rica Rwigamba, will be pulling out all stops again to make sure that the country efforts to protect the mountain gorillas, will be publicized all over the world, as the global conservation fraternity, friends of Rwanda and tourists from all over the world flock to Musanze and do animal pilgrimage of the gorilla kind.

Tracking mountain gorillas remains Rwanda’s highest profile tourism activity, and is by any standards well organized and ‘packaged’, so that visitors, who after all pay US Dollars 750 per person per tracking, get full value for their money. Every day are 10 groups of gorillas available for visits by tourists, who assemble at the park headquarters at 7 a.m. It is there that they are allocated to which group they will track, where they meet their guides, get the opportunity to meet fellow group members and get their initial briefing. RDB serves complimentary coffee and tea to the visitors from near and far and a group of traditional Rwandan dancers perform some of their thrilling displays to set the mood for the day.

Come rain or shine, the 10 groups of maximum 8 tourists will be on the road by latest 8, driving to their ‘jump off point’ from where their hike up one of the five volcanoes commences. Some of the gorilla groups are known to have a shorter access route while others are more distant from the park headquarters, some require a short drive and a longer hike while others require a longer drive but a shorter walk, in the end however all offering visitors the experience of a life time. By my own count I have now been privileged to visit the gentle giants of the Virunga Mountains, and of Bwindi, 20 times and every time I see different scenarios, different behaviour, different patterns.

The time frames differ widely, my longest hike taking nearly 12 hours in pouring rain, before gorilla tracking had become a regularized tourism attraction in Uganda in the early 90’s, to just under 3 hours, to and from the Kinigi park headquarters in Rwanda in glorious sunshine. Getting all sweaty, wet to the skin at times inspite of protective clothes, scratched by thorns and ‘beaten’ by snapping branches, stuck in bamboo or thickets, wading knee deep in open glades saturated with rain water or literally trotting along well beaten paths, it is all part of the experience, part of the excitement and makes part of the memories tourists take home with them, as ambassadors of conservation, friends of the gorillas and last but not least, friends of Rwanda.

This year a dozen young and new born gorillas will be named, manifesting the steady growth in gorilla numbers as a result of a concerted effort by the communities living around the park, separated from the forest by a chest high stone wall meandering and winding along the volcanoes for about 70 kilometres to the border with Uganda, by RDB and their team of dedicated wardens, rangers, trackers and guides and by international NGO’s like the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International and many others contributing in cash and kind to gorilla conservation. However, crucial to the success of RDB’s conservation efforts was to get the local communities on board, turning poachers into guardians of Rwanda’s wildlife heritage and showing the communities that benefits come their way as a result of them endorsing conservation measures. 5 percent of the revenue from gorilla activities comes directly to the community beneficiaries, in form of constructing water tanks, laying water pipes to homesteads, improving health and education facilities and other infrastructure such as better roads. Every year, over the two days prior to the naming of the gorillas, are such projects either launched or handed over upon completion, a timely reminder of the cooperative spirit shown by the locals and their appreciation by the wildlife managers. Additionally of course, numerous jobs have been created through gorilla tourism, and tourism in general of course. Every group of tourists going up the mountain is able to engage the services of a porter, highly recommended for that matter, at a nominal cost of 20 US Dollars, who can carry the water, camera equipment and spare batteries and is ever ready to give a helping hand to climb up and down some of the steeper sections when ascending the mountain.

Farm supplies, like fruits and vegetables bought from locals, are sourced by hotels and lodges which have sprung up around Kinigi and of course in Musanze itself and staff are recruited from among local school leavers who are then trained to perform well on their jobs.

Tourism, which has in past years grown in leaps and bounds by double digit figures, vis a vis arrivals and in terms of revenues, has become a key cornerstone of Rwanda’s economy and conservation is not just a hollow phrase or lip service, but a firm commitment from the highest office in the land to the local grassroot ‘cells’, the smallest administrative unit in the country. Kwita Izina is an annual highlight in the calendar of Rwanda’s events, and though other festivals, like FESPAD 2013 earlier this year, also grab headlines, it is the Festival of the Gorillas which year after year commands the highest attendances and attention, regionally and internationally.

Watch this space for live reporting from this year’s Kwita Izina.

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