Milk. Marriage. Bananas. Church. Kagame. Dig.
Rwandan buzz words. Just to name a few.
I’m no expert, but if I had a word count of the words I heard most frequently in my explorations throughout these hills, that would be it. And y’all, that’s the English with no Kinyarwanda spice and flavor. That’s where the good stuff comes in.
I’m talking about abakekurus (old woman) drinking ikiviguto (the traditional milk yoghurt drink) in a sleepy, little umudugudu (village). You’ll find inka (cows) roaming around with cowboys greeting you with a smirky and clever, Amasho (may you have many herds of cows) by which you will obviously respond with Amashongore (may you have many herds of female cows). They’ll be surprised and admit that perhaps you too, are an umunyarwandaikazi (Rwandan woman).
Beyond words alone, names carry weight here too, like any place in the world.
Try reading off of a school attendance list, or a church bulletin, and you’ll be in a tongue twist faster than you could ever anticipate. Rwandan names aren’t intuitive to an outsider’s eye; in writing, Rwandans will most always capitalize their Kinyarwanda name (always first) and then follow with an English or French name that they may or may not have chosen. Kinyarwanda names often (not always, but frequently) involve God.
NZAYISENGA – I will worship God.
ISHIMWE – Give thanks to God.
TWIZEYIMANA – We have faith in God.
IRADUKUNDA – God loves us.
UWIMANA – God’s daughter or son.
DUSABIMANA – Let’s pray to God.
GIRAMATA – A girl who has milk.
HABIMANA – God exists.
NGABO – Fighter/warrior.
KIREZI – Someone brilliant, special or beautiful.
Heather was never an easy name to say in Rwanda, and outside of “Hida” I couldn’t expect it to be. After all, the names listed above are hard for foreigners to say, and so sometimes, names just don’t translate cross-culturally.
Impano was a name given to me by spunky, sassy Kinyarwanda teacher, Lilliose late in 2011 during our training program. It rolls off the tongue and you can’t help but smile. To me, it’s always sounded like the name for a young (probably crazy) child. The translation is simply “gift”. It was a nice name.
Yet, as my time in Rwanda has grown and developed within a few other contexts, my name has changed too. I don’t remember when it happened – or even how – but instead of Impano, eventually I was given the name, Ingabire.
For the longest time, I thought the words (Impano & Ingabire) were identical. In a way, they almost are. Yet, there is one key, very important difference. While the first name is a practical, tangible gift, Ingabire is understood more as “a gift from God; grace.” The depth and implication of meaning didn’t strike me until a couple of weeks ago. We were at the Rwanda Standards Board procuring some necessary documents for our business when one of the tellers articulately and clearly explained that Ingabire is quite different from Impano.
It’s like the difference between a lovely cardigan sweater under the Christmas tree and the value of forgiveness a friend might offer you. One is just a bit weightier. More meaningful, you might say.
Spiritually, it meant a lot to me – deeply and truly. Rwanda had represented this “present” or “gift” in my life for a number of years and yet to know that I was given the name of Grace after a time in my life where God’s grace actually took fruition in my life – I was left speechless. It’s His grace that I can be here again. It’s His grace that we have life at all. It’s in His holy grace that we love, live, and exist. No matter where our feet fall. He tells us that, blessed are the feet that bring good news and more and more I am convinced that those feet are blessed because of the grace imparted on them.
Ahem, okay. Sermon over.
Even in such a small distinction, you can see, names are always, always more powerful than you might even initially suppose. Especially in the context of place that grants so much value to giving someone a name in regards to who they are as a person and in character.
Ironically, this entire revelation of my own naming happened right as I was headed into a weekend known around the country as, “Kwita Izina” (to give a name).
Traditionally, Rwandan families gather 8 days after a mother gives birth to discuss the baby’s name. Families announce suggestions (with fanta, beer, food, of course) and a name is selected. Often, the parents have already chosen something anyway, but in jest, it is a fun, culturally important, ceremonial thing to do.
From this old-time cultural mainstay, Rwanda has capitalized to develop an eco-tourism, conservation effort in naming newborn baby gorillas every year. It’s brilliant; starting in 2005, and partnering with various government and local partners, the national event gathers diplomats, tourists, community members, international leaders, and Rwandans of all ages for a celebration of the newborn gorillas. At the base of the Virunga Mountains, each gorilla born in the previous calendar year is given a name, just like babies year-round.
Having heard about this for years, I had always wanted to go. This year was the year; I had secured VIP passes, a few friends, and an official jacket for the program. Game on. We took the earliest bus we could to get to the mountains early, and in the cool breezes of Saturday morning we couldn’t wait to see the gorillas, the President, or whatever else the day could entail. As with everything in this country, you really never know.
We grabbed our seats on the lush green grass and watched as performers like Rafiki and Urban Boyz rapped away. Dignitaries and celebrities (mostly government officials) passed us by and I felt like a lame paparazzi chick for catching snapshots of the Minister of Health. VIP tickets get you a bobbly white lawn chair; though we looked on in the free, general admission section where hundreds – probably thousands – of people were standing smushed together. All for the gorillas! I kept my eyes wide-open, unsure of what might happen next.
The day “got real” when the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame arrived. With stealthy speed, he greeted and enthused crowds with handshakes, waves, and salutes. Thousands of people cheered as he would make his way to the podium; after all, this was Kagame. He’s as tall as he looks in photos and like Obama, the white hair is growing thick.
Apparently, presidency is hard no matter where you lead. He spoke on the importance of conserving Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – gorillas included – and the crowd became antsy as the time for the gorillas grew nearer.
I dare say I was not the only one who thought this, but my impression was that once the time for dissemination of names arrived, we would actually see the baby gorillas.
Um. That’s cute. But no.
Something much better (in the most optimistic perspective possible) happened. As chosen public figures made their way to the stage to give their chosen names, nearly 50 people dressed in full-on gorilla suits made their way to the front of the stage. These suits were no joke – and some were incredibly small, adorable, and just…
I couldn’t get enough.
I took about 10 videos and found myself incessantly laughing.
Of course this would happen. I mean, hello, it’s not like they can go and hike the volcanoes expecting to come upon these gorilla clans and remove every baby for their public debut! I definitely didn’t think that one through. It didn’t matter, however, as I was so lost in the moment of hilarity. I hadn’t laughed that hard in quite some time. The actors rolled around in the grass and picked ticks off each other as if they were the real thing. Evidently, most people knew full well this would happen – I was totally blind sighted. But no matter, like I said: it was funny, engaging, and I had never seen anything quite like it.
My friends and I meandered the premises for an hour or two after wards, gorged on the free buffet, and headed back to Kigali when we finally did hitch a ride down from the Virunga Park base. The day hadn’t really been what I expected, but Rwanda never really is. My name wasn’t what I thought I understood, my time here has rarely been like what I presume it could be, and so clearly, the branded, Rwanda-proud event of the year would have to be like this. I shouldn’t even have been surprised.
When our bus eeked back into Kigali city-limits that evening, it was quickly agreed upon.
We needed pizza.
So, tired, barely awake (but hungry) we made our way to a favorite pizza in town (Sole e Luna) where I promptly ordered the 4 Formaggi option. Number 22, thank you very much. Because sometimes, that’s life. Enjoying fake gorillas with your friends and then eating goat, brie, mozzarella, and gouda cheese on perfectly crisp bread.
We have our names for a reason and we have our lives for a reason. Even if they surprise us along the way.
Chin up, there’s always more.