Sahara camel racing glory brings boy jockey big dreams for his future

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Published on: Amended:

Ingall (Niger) (AFP)

Moussa, 10, will long enjoy the glory of the weekend camel race in Niger. A little higher than the knees of his victorious steed, the boy flew enough across the desert to snatch the first prize in one of the most prestigious events in the Sahara.

The competition drew camel races from all over Niger – and beyond – to the oasis town of Ingall, the country’s traditional gateway to the Sahara and the scene of the annual Cure Salee gathering of Tuareg and Wodaabe nomads. .

But it was Moussa – more used to long, hot days tending to his father’s cattle in the desert – who won Saturday’s big race.

Moussa does not go to school but has been riding camels, cantankerous beasts that roar, snort and spit foul bile at their enemies, since the age of three. At age seven, he says, he began to venture solo. “Before, I was afraid to ride a camel alone,” he says.

Now measuring one meter (three feet three inches), Moussa dreams of a golden future in which he will have “lots of camels” and above all “will win other races”.

The race is a highlight of the three-day nomadic festival, when distant shepherds lead their cattle up to 400 kilometers (250 miles) apart, converging on three mineral-rich water sources that give the gathering its name.

The race is a highlight of the Cure Salee festival, a 10 kilometer marathon under the scorching sun of the Sahara Michèle Cattani AFP

– Music and weddings –

The celebration comes after the rains of mid-September, with ritual music and dances, courtship displays, weddings and vaccinations for the beasts and their masters, relieving the increasingly difficult lives of nomads – marginalized and trapped in a region torn by jihadist violence.

For this brief respite, people prefer not to talk about their problems but just to have fun.

Jockeys are young - the lighter they are, the faster their animals will move
Jockeys are young – the lighter they are, the faster their animals will move Michèle Cattani AFP

“There is football in Europe, here we have camel races”, explains Khamid Ekwel, a renowned owner of camel races.

So at dawn on Saturday, hundreds of herders pushed against the stadium barriers – a five-kilometer (three-mile) track in the desert marked by white-painted stones – to witness the race over two laps.

Dozens of pickups are strategically parked to give spectators standing on their roofs the best view. Others brought their camels – about two meters at the shoulder – to gain some height. Everyone is waiting under the sun rising in a blue sky, betting on the 25 animals in the race.

The camels arrive soon and are placed behind a green rope stretched across the starting line. Jockeys are young, because the lighter they are, the faster the animals will go.

Lahsanne Abdallah Najim, race official and himself owner of one of the favorites, is stressed: he has to ensure an orderly start, but at the same time wants his animal to win.

The festival is a celebration of nomadic culture
The festival is a celebration of nomadic culture Michèle Cattani AFP

The big moment is here. Najim gets into his pick-up, signals about fifteen people to get in the back, readjusts his scarf over his nose, then applies his brakes while waiting for the white flag.

The flag falls. The camels set off at a gallop. The spectators shout. Najim’s vehicle and a dozen others roar, causing a sandstorm. Soon, we don’t see much, the animals are already far ahead.

– ‘A winning camel’ –

In his car, Najim smiles: “There are some who choose speed now, but they will be last at the end. It is in the second lap that we must accelerate.

Nomads converge on the oasis town of Ingall to mark the end of the rainy season
Nomads converge on the oasis town of Ingall to mark the end of the rainy season Michèle Cattani AFP

After the first five kilometers, four camels are neck and neck and Najim’s is one. Under his scarf, he recites passages from the Koran.

Motorcycles and pick-ups speed down the track and their drivers scream but the jockeys pay no attention.

Their only objective is to coax their camels so that they always go faster in the final sprint until the finish.

“It was a terrible final sprint,” says Najim.

“Even more terrible for me because I’m fourth.”

The four favorites are soon brought to the platform where Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum is installed.

Little Moussa smiles broadly after his victory over a camel named Mahokat (“the fool”).

Mahokat coach Mohamed Ali is happy but not surprised.

Before the race, he predicted: “This camel is a winning camel. This very day, inchallah.

“There are prices of course, but that’s not what interests us. It’s about winning, ”says Hassan Mohamed, owner of a large team, with a smile.

“We are only looking for pleasure and glory.”

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