camels are ugly creatures. and stubborn. and ornery. they exhibit virtually every characteristic that you want to avoid in a riding animal. yet dozens, sometimes hundreds, of mzungu tourists crowd into maralal every year during august to jostle around atop a camel's hump while its handlers smack it and prod it and pull it along the 20km derby course. no amount of padding can soften the ride, and racers alight from their lanky vehicles bowlegged, often bloody, and surely bruised. some would call a sport of such a masochistic persuasion insane. perhaps. but it sure as hell is entertaining.
call me what you will - smart, unadventurous, poor - but alas, i did not race. instead i stood among the throng of spectators at the starting line - mostly local samburu warriors and women, wrapped tightly against the cold in their brilliant shukas, adorned with heavy beaded necklaces or heavily feathered headdresses, silently bemused. one middle-aged samburu man with a few desultory feathers stuck in his worn headband took great interest in my digital camera and kept pressing his eye against the LCD screen in wonder. i offered to take a picture of him and he haughtily refused - he softened a moment later and demanded instead that i pay him. i counteroffered that i would show him the picture if he allowed me to take it. he agreed. standing stock-still before the camera, he seemed a bit confused about his role in the procedure. he was holding what looked like a small cylindrical carrying case of some sort, adorned with feathers on each end, and a moment before i snapped the shot, he swung this case forward menacingly, twirling it as though it were the devil's baton and he was casting a witchdoctor's curse. he didn't make a sound as he peered at the photo afterwards, but seemed proud and content, calling friends and passersby over to take a look. after the novelty wore off, he got bored, and again demanded payment. "you will sell it," he declared. i told him that it was just for me to look at, and that it wasn't for sale. he called a friend over and began to discuss the matter with him - i took the opportunity to slink away and lose myself within the mass of people gathered for the start of the race.
maralal is a desert, according to all accounts prior to my trip. it turned out to be the wettest place that i've been in kenya. the torrential downpours during the day gave way to sub-40 temperatures at night, and those of us silly enough to remain outdoors had to swaddle ourselves in samburu blankets to ward off the evening chill. not even the race itself was safe from the weather, and the rain began pounding the riders within minutes from the start. camels aren't the most graceful creatures on dry land, and the mud stirred up by the cataract created what amounted to a 12 mile-long slip-and-slide. the only contestant from our peace corps group to place, joe, came in third when his camel collapsed 30 feet before the line after having led for the entire course.
granted, i didn't actually watch the race, so most of my speculation is second-hand. being the smart/unadventurous/poor spectator that i am, i retreated to shelter at the first sign of rain. my squeamishness soon turned to my advantage, however. the self-designated peace corps table became front-row seating for the groups of traditional samburu, pokot, and turkana dancers that had been bussed in for the occasion. most of the groups were comprised of ancient wrinkled women who seemed as black as the soil and as old as the land itself. each of their respective dances were performed with nuances particular to their tribe, but the basic element in all was the same; the women would bunch together and sway, chanting rhythmically in their native tongue, stamping their feet as the mood would strike, somehow always in unison. around their necks hung huge rainbows of beads, some of which looked to weigh ten pounds or more, and which were often a main element of the dances. during one such dance, two women emerged from the pulsating mob, which stretched out to form a crescent around them, ever moving. the women turned to face each other and began to bob in alternation, thrusting their necks forward at the peak of the movement to lift the masses of beads for a brief moment before retreating back into a half-crouch. the rest of the group bounced and chanted all the while. i couldn't tell if it was a stand-off competition in bead-tossing, but there never seemed to be a winner - after several minutes the two women would melt back into the semi-circle to be replaced by another pair of "contestants."
these performances lasted for over an hour, the three groups rotating in succession. although a large camera-happy crowd formed, the dancers seemed oblivious to their presence, as if moving only for each other, or themselves. after the rain stopped the crowd began to disperse, but the women moved out from under the canopy into a nearby field to continue their chanting and singing and dancing to the rhythms of the earth.