Speed and excitement appeals to all children. So also for the children in Saloum Delta, a mangrove area in the southern part of Senegal, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site for its valuable nature.
Donkey and the boat type pirogue are the most important means of transportation in this area, and the kids, especially the boys, learn to master the art of riding a donkey at a very young age. The eco lodge Niassam conducts its activities in close cooperation with the villages in the area. Several times a year they organized a donkey race for the kids. The tourists living at the lodge are encouraged to put money in the prize pool. It can be a considerable sum when rich tourists with a guilty conscience for the luxury they live side by side with the poor life in the villages, are urged in public to give money. Niassam’s owner, Jean-Pierre, is probably speculating in this and smiles devious when he walks around with his hat.
It’s early morning, the sun is high in the sky and it’s already very hot. The kids have begun to gather down by the lagoon and most of them have brought one of the family’s donkeys. While waiting, they play soccer on the sandbank. We, the tourists, are starting to get together in excitement, it is not every day we experience a donkey race.
At low tide, a long stretch of hard-packed sand is formed along the lagoon, very suitable for a donkey race. The goal is about 500m away and the kids must ride up, turn around the pole and ride back. There are 2 classes, one for the youngest and one for the older boys. Cash prizes are awarded to the first three in both classes. Poverty is great in this area so a cash prize is important, this is no game.
We can feel the seriousness and excitement in the air and discover a little bit of quarrel in the target area. It is Jean-Pierre who stands for everything and keeps track of the ranks. He makes sure that no one starts in the wrong class and it is obvious that he knows the kids well. Then they are all ready on the starting point and Jean-Pierre lifts his arm. Ready Set GO, he screams in French and we see them all leave in the dusty cloud.
We cheer as load as we can, and it is meant for all of them. They disappear in the horizon and it takes some time before we see the first donkey and rider on their way back. But right behind comes one more and there is a hard competition all the way to the finish line.
Not only have we put money in the prize pool, we have also been encouraged to put money on the winner. The money we invested in a possible winner goes straight to the one who actually wins. So we get a little grip of the seriousness and look nervously after the boy in whom we have invested money.
It ends with laughter and tears and I wonder if this really was necessary. Could they not all share the prize pool? But Jean-Pierre claims it is important that they learn to compete and tolerate a defeat. They live a hard life and this is an opportunity to show what they can manage and at the same time a motivation to improve for the next donkey race.
Read more about Lodge des Niassam in another post.