Speeding around the bends of a rugged dirt track, holding onto the reigns for dear life, as spectators cheer your four-legged companion to go faster, and faster. Your adrenalin hits a high as you see your rival between you and the finish line, you know what you need to do, you need to whip that ass. Oh, and by ass, we mean donkey, because this is the sport of Donkey Racing.
At over 700 years old, Lamu is amongst the oldest inhabited Swahili townships on the planet and is Kenya’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement. In it’s heyday it served as one of Africa’s most important international trading hubs. Donkeys have been cemented in Lamu history from its early days and were increasingly important during the time of trade.
To preserve the traditional culture of the community, the government banned all cars (even bicycles) from the UNESCO listed old town in 2016, meaning the only form of transport within the old town is by donkey. One of the few motor vehicles allowed in the old town is an ambulance for donkeys.
Today, the race forms part of the Lamu Cultural Festival held in November. This festival is a celebration of Lamu culture and history and includes dhow (sailboat) racing which is also important in Lamu’s history. The sport is popular with people of all ages, with the 2016 race being taken out by 14-year-old Omar Kombon and his noble steed Kagala, winning a hefty cash prize and a two-day holiday in Nairobi.
The donkey race meanders around the old town giving riders the challenge of tacking different corners in different environments. Donkeys are usually ridden bareback, although some riders use some form of padding. The riders control their magnificent beast using reigns and a stick, similar to a whip as in horse racing.
How to Experience Donkey Racing
Although there are donkey racing events in several destinations, the race through Lamu old town is a sight that cannot be rivalled. Lamu is not the easiest place to travel to, and its airport, Manda is situated on the neighbouring island, so plan with ample time to make the trip. From Nairobi you can take a flight from to Manda, but the flight most likely won’t be direct. Once in Manda, you will need to pay someone to ferry you across the strait, which will likely be at a premium cost for tourists.
Ferry’s are also available from Mokowe on the mainland, however this would require a lot of land transportation to get to Mokowe. Please check the security situation if you choose this route.
It is also possible to try this sport at home if you have access to donkeys. Donkeys and mules are ridden throughout the world and it is a small step (or faster step) to running and racing. If you decide to try this event at home, make sure you comply with your local laws and look after the welfare of the animals.