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How to Name a Mountain Gorilla in Rwanda



The citizens of Rwanda are dedicated to saving the endangered mountain gorilla. Although parks have now been set aside for the gorillas, the encroachment of humans did plenty of damage in the 20th century, both from poaching and from human-borne disease. At one point, there were only 242 gorillas left in the Virunga Massif volcanic region. Now there are 600, largely due to community involvement in their protection. One way Rwanda promotes gorilla conservation is the traditional baby naming ceremony Kwita Izina, now held every September to name new baby gorillas.    

The custom of hosting a naming ceremony for newborns is one of Rwanda’s oldest cultural traditions, widely believed to date back to the foundation of the monarchy, in the 11th century. A week after a child was born, its parents would invite friends and family from their clan—or ubwoko in Kinyarwanda, the country’s indigenous language—to their home to help choose a name. Women and children would prepare food—typically a one-pot dish combining local produce such as cassava, peas, and peanuts—while the men shared sorghum malt beer.

The ceremony would begin with the presentation of the newborn to the clan, followed by a collective prayer to Imana, the supreme being, to protect the family and endow the parents with many more children. Everyone from the tribe’s youngest members to its elders would suggest a name—typically something with an auspicious connotation.

Once the parents chose from the list of proposed names, the clan mothers would erupt in cheering and applause, known as impundu (“happiness sounds”), and a parting beer made from fermented bananas, called agashinguracumu, would be served to the departing guests. The family would be showered with gifts, such as a cow or new linens, and the baby would be allowed to leave the house, and enter the outside world, for the first time.

This past September, 25 new mountain gorilla babies were named in front of 30,000 people who attended the ceremony in Kinigi, near Volcanoes National Park. Read more of what Rwandans are doing to save their "most treasured animal” at Atlas Obscura.


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