Practice makes perfect: Lamu donkey race enthusiasts reveal secrets behind their success

Ahmed Mohamed training with his donkey at the Lamu seafront area on January 25, 2023.

Photo credit: Kalume Kazungu | Nation Media Group

In Lamu Old Town, celebrations are not complete without featuring the famous donkey race competition.

Lamu Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site, having been listed in 2001 owing to its rich culture and heritage spanning decades.

It is worth noting that donkeys in Lamu are not just your normal animal. This ‘beast of burden’ as we like to call it is part and parcel of a typical Lamu household.

In Lamu, donkeys are treated with utmost care and respect.

Donkeys are a major means of transport on the over 35 islands in the Lamu archipelago.

Lamu Old Town alone, for instance, has more than 3,000 donkeys.

During annual Lamu festivals such as Maulid, the famous Lamu Cultural Fete, Food, and Expo Festival, among others, the donkey race is usually given first priority as part of the entertainment to revelers.

The donkey race continues to be one of the leading aspects of the Lamu festivities that draw into the county thousands of tourists and fun lovers from around the globe who always come to witness one on one the Lamu donkey in action.

It is during such races that the donkeys compete fairly and at the end of the day the winners are crowned and their owners receive handsome amounts of cash and trophies among other gifts.

Nation.Africa sought to unearth how the Lamu donkey participants and competitors prepare ahead of a tournament.

Ahmed Mohamed, 21, one of the renowned donkey race giants in Lamu town says a donkey race participant always trains like any other sportsperson, be it an athlete, a footballer, basketball, and a swimmer, among others.

According to Mr Mohamed, most of them train one month or several weeks ahead of the lined-up tournaments.

Their training involves actual donkey races at the seafront area of the old town during early mornings or late in the evenings when the place is less flooded or has no people walking around.

Mr Mohamed adds that providing your donkey with a good diet, frequent exercises, health check-ups, and developing friendship with it is part of the secrets to success.

“Winning a donkey race starts from far. One doesn’t just wake up to partake in a race and win. We always spend a fortune to ensure our animals eat well, receive the required medication, and do enough exercise and training, including running. We also ensure they sleep comfortably. Once you do that, your donkey will not let you down during competitions,” said Mr Mohamed.

Sued Hashim, the winner of the 2022 Lamu Annual Cultural Festival Donkey Race, told Nation.Africa that knowing the language of your donkey is key to success.

Mr Hashim notes that funny as it may sound, the Lamu donkeys are the most diligent and disciplined animals you will ever witness.

He says his donkey named ‘Jihangry’ is always his best friend.

He says the various training he has had with his donkey has resulted in him developing some signs and utterances that the animal understands.

“Developing friendship with your donkey guarantees you good performance during competition. How can you instruct your donkey and ensure it listens to you if you’re enemies with each other? My Jihangry knows what I want during the competition. Once I instruct, it adheres to those instructions and does wonders,” said Mr Hashim.

Abdulswamad Bakari, another renowned donkey enthusiast in Lamu town advises those intending to feature in donkey races and win in the future to treasure their animals, love them and avoid treating them harshly.

In Lamu Old Town, the only mode of movement existing is riding donkeys, handcarts, and people walking on foot.

Any form of westernised culture, including advanced means of transport, like vehicles and motorcycles, is not allowed in the Unesco World Heritage site central business district.

As opposed to other parts of the country where donkeys normally have chariots on to which goods and luggage are loaded, the Lamu donkeys carry their loads directly on their bare backs no matter how heavy the loads are.

 Lamu is the only Island on the Swahili Coast with the highest number of donkeys whose population is 90 percent of all animals reared by locals.

In fact, Lamu donkeys are the second highest in population after human beings.

The entire county has a donkey population of more than 10,000.