Inside the Maralal’s camel derby
By Caroline Chebet

Competitors at the 30th edition of the Camel Derby [Harun Wathari, Standard]

A rich ethnic montage, a tableau of native cultures bonded by a camel. This aptly sums up the annual Maralal International Camel Derby.

This year’s thrills of the 30th edition of the yearly derby went down in Yare area in Samburu West Sub-county attracting camel racers and enthusiasts alike to converge for one of country’s unique cultural sports.

“It is not only about the camels, it is about us, the pastoral communities coming together to promote peace, participate in traditional games and re-awaken our cultures,” Lemain Lenebalaa, one of the camel riders.

For centuries camels have been an important part of life in the region as a mode of transport for the pastoralists, equally rising into the limelight as a unique unifying factor. The camel derby, as its history goes, is thus a celebration of the local way of life, a celebration of camel and a platform to build peace.

From wooing cultural enthusiasts, to bringing onboard adventures of the wild to capping it with traditional ceremonies, this year’s derby brought to life the mix of rich nomadic and cultural adventures of the wild Rift.

The derby is key in bringing together Turkana, Samburu, Somali, Rendile and Pokot communities, also nurturing peace among them. This is often portrayed by the rich cultural activities bringing the communities together during the three-day event, with each of the communities building a traditional hut within the arena to signify their presence and participation in the peace-building event. Here, traditional ceremonies including a key wedding to tie the event, arts and crafts to compliment it and beaded jewellery to define the cultural fete, pop colours of the derby.

And even as the races take place, old men and women drawn from the communities engage in traditional games, exchanging knowledge on traditional medicine, singing and dancing even as ladies get a chance to spruce themselves up and step out to pride in traditional attire. Among famous games that dominate bring together rival communities to participate in is a traditional game that resembles chess. 

Samburu governor Moses Lenolkulal (right) playing Ntotoi [Harun Wathari, Standard]

“I often come here to play Ntotoi every year. This game bonds the communities and act as a platform for mediation talks. Competitors from different communities participate and the winner is crowned at the end of the event, just like the camel racers,” William Lekwale said.

Players of Ntotoi, are majorly old men, who have over the years preserved the culture, intrigues of the game which they say, is addictive and can keep competitors till late into the night. During the event, a number of activities including cycle racing and traditional games often take place.

As the intrigues of the country’s finest camels unravel, competitors race in different categories-the amateurs and the professional racers. But before the camel racing takes off, cycling is often undertaken the day before to set the pace for the two days when camels will command attention in the town. The cycle race attracts dedicated professionals on world-class bikes, as well as local amateurs and those who are physically challenged.

Samburu cultural dancers performing at the event [Harun Wathari, Standard]

And when the day dawns on camels to hobble along, stagger, fall while rising on their feet to prove their might, it is usually ecstatic. From being goaded to singly stand in a file at the starting line, to the traditional songs and dances from enthusiasts that line up to cheer the spirits of the race, and also build up momentum for the beasts that unites them.

And while some competitors travel from far, taking almost two weeks on the road to the legendary Maralal Derby, others have since developed a liking, tossing themselves into the competition that doubles as one of the revenue-earners in the County.

“I often compete in the elite category on a yearly basis. I have won the race thrice and this year, I emerged third this year. I am from Rendille community and often travel for eight days with my camels to Maralal; to compete,” Samuel Lewano, one of the competitors said.

Lewano, was one of the 26 competitors this year, among the 11 entrants into the elite category. Amateur racers attracted 15 entries. And when the whistle goes off, the thrills of camel racing awaken the confusion that makes the derby worthwhile. With some totally stumbling, others aptly lying down and others trudging along with the cheers that seem to mar their concentration.

“Camels generally fear large gatherings and noise and the drama is often experienced at the starting point. Once they set off to less-busy places, they are comfortable enough to run,” Samburu Trade, Tourism and Cooperatives Executive Peter Leshakwet said.

Some of the participants had a hard time with their Camels  [Harun Wathari, Standard]

Intrigues of competitors tapping, peacefully negotiating and some shoving their camels in a bid to top the rest paints the tedious negotiation skills of handling a camel, more so in the amateur racers.

Watching the professional racers head off, breaking free and hobbling along is more intriguing even as cheering supporters line up the stretch, in a bid to keep up the spirits. But unlike the elite racers, amateur racers often lose control of their over-excited camels which scatter around in different directions whenever a whistle goes off.

To some, it is no mean feat handling a camel, to others, growing up with camels gave them the guts to get into the race.

Samburu cultural dancers performing at the event [Harun Wathari, Standard]

“I train my camel just a day before. I used to see my cousins ride on camels and I first participated in the Camel Derby when I was eleven. This year, I decided to give it a try,” Vanila Lesooni, 15 said.

Lesooni, who was the youngest participant, would emerge top in the ladies among the amateur category, bagging SH 10,000 for her school fees. The race has since shot into international limelight, attracting competitors from across the world with racers determined to test the stamina and camel-riding skills, both pro and beginner.