At Sudan turtle race, slow competitors a sign of newfound freedoms

The 7-year-old Mohammed al-Kamil and 5-year-old Omar al-Kamil hold two participants of a turtle race held in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum.

Thanks to one young Sudanese veterinarian, the world of sports competitions is now one discipline richer: turtle racing.

Driven by the sense that turtles’ abilities are not always sufficiently appreciated, Noon Mahgoub launched the new race in front of Khartoum’s National Museum. “Many things prompted me to organise this race for turtles. One is that they are oppressed animals and are always described as slower. This injustice is the result of comparing their speed with animals that are not from their species,” she says.

The first race saw 35 competitors inching their way along a 2.5-metre course as their owners looked on, cheering their turtles on and encouraging them to focus with the help of their favourite snacks.

The winner was Dargot, who completed the course in a mere 33 seconds. Dina, the turtle’s owner, was presented with a trophy and the symbolic sum of 1,000 Sudanese pounds (22 dollars) as the prize.  

Mahgoub, 27, tells dpa that she was delighted – and slightly surprised – at the relatively large crowd that gathered to watch the race. After the success of the premiere in November, she is planning further turtle-racing contests.

In all, 300 men, women and children showed up as turtles large and small were kitted out with numbers and lined up at the starting line. 

A whistle signalled the start of the race, but the rules allowed owners to give their turtles a little nudge to encourage them on their way. Warm applause greeted the competitors’ progress.

One of the viewers was 3-year-old Abdel Rahman, whose turtle Tortilla was among the competitors. His mother said the boy used to be introverted and that she had wondered how to help him. Friends had suggested she buy him a pet, she says. Now, her son is almost like a different person, taking care of his pet and socializing more. 

People in Sudan are discovering a whole range of new activities since the transitional government replaced long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir, whose rule was based on Islamic Sharia law. Since the 1990s, dress codes were strictly regulated and alcohol was completely banned.

Al-Bashir ruled Sudan under a military dictatorship for almost 30 years before he was deposed by the army in April 2019 after months of mass protests. By July, the army and civilian opposition had agreed on a transitional government, allowing the populace new freedoms.

In a country with relatively few leisure activities, all forms of sport are highly popular. This is also partly because there are relatively few music concerts, and often the tickets are too expensive for many to afford anyways. While people are enjoying more freedoms, Sudan’s economy is still struggling. 

Mahgoub started breeding turtles in 2018, and this activity has recently blossomed to become a successful business. She sees the race as a chance to inform people about the creatures – their habits and their characteristics, as well as what they like to eat and drink. She sees it as a social responsibility, as well as a chance for fun.

Many of Mahgoub’s customers are mothers looking for a present for their children, one that will entice them away from the TV or computer. 

Two other race attendees, Mohammed Hamdin and Nasrallah al-Kasim, both biology teachers, see the race as an educational opportunity.

Sudan’s zoo was shut down in the 1990s, so for many children, the turtle race is a way to get close to animals. Hamdin also underlines the importance of such recreational activities for children and adults, given the lack of entertainment available in Sudan.

Anne, a 4-year-old, also attended the race. Her father says that buying her a turtle has helped her to become more responsible.

He tells dpa about the races: “It is only through these important activities to broaden the awareness of children and adults that there are others on this planet that deserve attention.”