Ten-year-old Moussa will bask in the glory of the weekend camel race in Niger for a long time.
Little higher than his victorious charger’s knees, the boy fairly flew across the desert to snatch first prize in one of the most prestigious events of the Sahara.
The competition drew racing camels from across Niger – and further afield – to the oasis town of Ingall, the country’s traditional gateway to the Sahara and scene of the annual Cure Salee gathering of Tuareg and Wodaabe nomads.
But it was Moussa – more used to long, hot days tending his father’s cattle in the desert – who won Saturday’s big race.
Moussa does not go to school but has been riding camels, the speedy, finicky animals that are a hugely important part of life in the Sahara, since he was three years old. At seven, he says, he began venturing out solo. “I used to be afraid to ride camels alone,” he says.
Now one metre (three feet, three inches) tall, Moussa is dreaming of a golden future in which he will have “plenty of camels” and above all “will win other races”.
The race is a highlight of the three-day nomad festival, when far-flung herders lead their cattle from up to 400km (250 miles) away, converging on three springs of water rich in mineral salts that give the gathering its name.
The celebration comes after the rains in mid-September, with music and ritual dances, courtship and weddings and vaccinations for beasts and their masters, bringing relief from the nomads’ increasingly hard lives – marginalised and trapped in a region riven by violence by armed groups.
For this brief respite, people prefer not to talk about their troubles but to just have fun.
“There is football in Europe, here we have camel racing,” says Khamid Ekwel, a renowned owner of racing camels.