Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Day at the Races

It may not be Ascot – but fans of donkey-racing take the contest seriously.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Dozens of people surround the winning steed as it’s fanned and massaged after crossing the finish line. But the black donkey, owned by Khwaja Sultan Mohammad, just looks tired after having completed the 30-kilometre course in about 90 minutes.

The Khar Paiga, or donkey races, are a revered tradition in Mazar-e-Sharif, helping the residents of the northern Balkh province pass the winter months.

There are four races, held in January and February every year, which attract specially trained donkeys from all over the province. Donkey experts select two animals from the scores of possible entries to compete in each race.

Thousands of spectators turned out for the final race of the year on February 17. And this being the relatively freewheeling Mazar, many of the fans were eager to place a bet on their favourite.

The festivities actually start the night before the race, with owners and spectators holding parties at local hotels and restaurants. So there were more than a few bleary eyes among the crowd that assembled at the starting line in Tashqurghan, about 50 kilometres east of Mazar, on Friday morning.

The two donkeys, ridden by local village boys who are usually no more than seven years old, set off across an open field. They’re followed on horseback by two referees and by the donkeys’ owners armed with a supply of fresh fruit to quench their animals’ thirst. Spectators climb into the ubiquitous Toyota Corolla or the occasional Land Cruiser to follow the race in progress.

“Little village kids know how to ride a donkey,” said Sultan. He said he paid his rider the equivalent of 60 US dollars for the race. “In addition to the fee, the winning rider gets about 200 dollars from the spectators,” he said.

The owner of the winning donkey receives 700 dollars' worth of oats, the cost of which is borne by the loser. That may explain why Popal, whose donkey came in second, looked pretty angry and refused to be interviewed.

“This is a wonderful spectacle for us. I take part in all of the races each year,” said onlooker Ahmad Fardin, 25.

Fardin had reason to be excited. He said he had wagered 100 dollars on the winning donkey. He insisted that this counted as entertainment and not gambling, which is a sin according to Islam.

“I am not a gambler,” he said. "These races are held only four times a year and when we young people take part, we have to bet. If we don't, we aren't ‘kaaka’.”

"Kaaka" is a very big concept in Mazar. It means that a young man is generous, brave, and ready to throw his money away.

It’s clear that raising a champion is important to Sultan, 60. He has been breeding racing donkeys for 40 years, and considers himself an expert.

“It is a matter of honour for me. I win every year,” he said. “I am proud to keep people happy for one day,” he said.

Sultan says the secret to raising a winning donkey is pampering it, so he employs a trainer to care for his animal.

The trainer’s duties include wrapping the donkey in blankets when it’s cold, giving him cool baths when it’s hot, and feeding him princely rations – at least compared with the ones other animals gets.

“One week prior to the race, we start feeding the donkey pears, bananas, apples and other fruit so he'll get stronger,” he said. “My rival lost because he did not take better care of his donkey.”

As part of the tradition, the donkey owners also hire cooks to prepare khar pilaw, or "donkey pilaff" - a famous local rice-and-meat dish – to serve to spectators after the race.

Mohammad Nazar, a resident of Mazar-e-Sharif, spoke to IWPR as he headed for Sultan’s house.

“I'm neither a donkey owner nor have I bet on any of them,” he said. “But I like the races a lot. And I love donkey pilaff.”

Not everyone went home happy, however. Shamsullah from Shiberghan, the capital of Jowzjan province, said he lost 40 dollars on the race.

“From now I am just going to watch,” he said. “I am not going to bet one afghani on any donkey.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.