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Tanzania's Goat Races Are Decadent And Depraved

Slumgoat Millionaire lost his first race at the Dar es Salaam Charity Goat Races. While the “owners” (sponsors, really) were standing in the corral at the center of the small racetrack, one of the MCs asked Slumgoat’s patron if he knew the rules.

“No,” he replied in a gravelly Scottish accent, his face sun-creased in the way of long-term white expats in Dar. He stood surrounded by fellow sponsors, as they laughed and tipsily swayed. “We were told just to bribe the judges. This is Tanzania!”


Despite the pervasive jokes, I’ve never been asked to pay a bribe. And as far as I could tell, the goat races were a clean affair.

Racing goats is mostly a matter of human labor. Event staffers carry each goat—legs feebly kicking, bleating their disinterest in the sport—into the roughly plywood-walled oval of a track. The goats are lined up according to the numbers on their smocks, but there are no gates, precisely because the goats don’t actually want to go forward at all. Instead, the same staffers form a phalanx behind the bleating animals, holding a rolled violet-and-navy carpet that bridges the inner and outer walls of the track. Slumgoat joined his tawny, black, or paint-spotted brethren, all of whom looked far better fed and less tick-ridden than their cousins roaming the Ruvuma Region villages nearby. These are cosmopolitan city goats, obliviously privileged.

The “race” starts when the staffers start goading the goats around the small track. The goats try to go everywhere except around the track, which they’ll have to stumblingly circumnavigate twice, but they eventually realize it’s easier just to pretend to race. During Slumgoat Millionaire’s loss to Pajero, nearly all of the staffers on the track were black Tanzanians, except for a white British construction consultant named Simon. He wore a red sherwani and a turban with a feather that flapped around wildly as he tried to choreograph the goats.

“Racing goats is mostly a matter of human labor.”

The theme of this year’s race was “Bollywood,” hence Simon’s outfit. Dar residents of all backgrounds dressed in sherwanis and saris. Some of those donning the elaborate, often red-orange-and-cream outfits happened to be South Asian, but I mostly saw them on my fellow white expats. On a day like this, maybe it made sense to locate oneself at the intersection of apparently commoditizable cultures. Fun and charity might flow better if we vapidly channeled them from everywhere, and ultimately nowhere at all.


Except we were still in Dar, sort of, albeit a manicured field in Masaki, Dar’s poshest neighborhood. To enter the grounds of the goat races is to get pressed into the armada of white vendor tents that, back home, signal county fairs and spring training games. In the rest of Dar es Salaam, the duka—Swahili for “shop”—acts as the main ventricle of open-air economic circulation. If you trade outside, you’re usually either in the sun or the shade of a palm tree or a corrugated tin overhang. Fancy tents are considerably rarer, and indicate that you’re going to pay a lot more than you need to elsewhere in the city

Unlike some expats, I spend a lot of time in duka-land, much of it drinking beer or eating barbecued chicken. At 5,000 Tanzanian Shillings (less than $2.50, and declining every day) per beer, I can at least say that the Kilamanjaro at the goat races was cheaper than any American event-tent beer, and also among the priciest pints I’ve had in Tanzania. So there we were, finally—in the liminal, transactional space between the mzungu (white person) homelands and our adopted city. We were allowed to get drunker here, perhaps, if only because it was so easy to get a cheap taxi or bajaji (motor-rickshaw) ride home. Real sloppiness wasn’t an issue, as far as I could tell. This was baseball-game drinking, with lower prices and even less audience attention on the competition.


“This started in Uganda 20 years ago,” Simon the red-clad choreographer told me when I caught him between races, his sweaty turban slipping. He said goat racing, invented and grown mostly by Western expats, has become commercial in Uganda—unlikely as that seems, given the unsporting anarchy of the actual racers. In Dar, “This is still uniquely a charity thing. Every year we raise $200,000.” Schools, disability programs, and other charity groups apply for grants to cover concrete needs, he told me. Simon chuckled and wished me luck when I told him I was trying to write about the goat races as if they were a sporting event. He jokingly implied that the goat races were mostly an outdoor drinking festival, with a philanthropic alibi. “It’s fun and unique and it brings the whole community together.”

In Dar es Salaam, phrases like “the whole community” beg an unusual intensity of interrogation. Everywhere has its hierarchies, but in East Africa’s largest city, economic capital of a country with a per capita income of $1,760, very few can afford to drop 10,000 shillings (about $4.64) just to enter the grounds of a goat race. The crowd that day was racially diverse—white expats may have been a plurality, but black residents of Dar (both Tanzanians and expats), as well as the city’s South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern communities, were well-represented. Regardless of ethnicity, everyone who could afford to watch the goats race was wealthy by Tanzanian standards. What did the less-affluent Tanzanians on the periphery of the races think of all this?


“It’s a good tradition, the motivation is good.” Shaban, a thin, blue-capped security guard, seated by the outside corner of a beer tent, told me this before the day’s final race. “Did you see all of the money collected today?” Shaban continued to munch his popcorn. I’ve met a lot of askari in Tanzania—private security is ubiquitous in this lightly policed country—but few as serene as Shaban. Apparently, defending the goat races isn’t a troubling beat.

“It’s good for sure,” Aloyce the clown told me, taking a break from talking with John and Furaha, two members of an amateur jump rope troupe. “I think they need to provide a star,” Aloyce said, meaning that the race should book a local pop musician. “Talking too much is boring.”


“In my country, we eat the goats. We don’t race them.”

Aloyce put on his big red nose and the three posed for a picture, along with a second clown who wandered into the frame. He was right—the MCs do talk a lot at the goat races, giving the day a Lions Club silent auction feel that it has probably outgrown. There were thousands of people here, after all, many of them fairly young and decisively drunk. The goat races feel like an event that will only become bigger, not least because younger waves of expats may be even more drawn to the submergence of outsider privilege in homegrown zaniness.


In one of the final races, I bet 5,000 shillings on a goat called Rural Juror, a name that seemed to belie some inside joke about jurors in rural Tanzania—unless it was a joke about jurors in rural England, Namibia, New Zealand, or wherever the goat’s owner was from. And then, of course, I learned it was a 30 Rock reference. As always at the goat races, the appeal was in the silly, warped ambiguity of it all. Rural Juror lost, in yet another tumble of goats and staff, staggering around the track like a pack of streakers forced to run before they were braced for the cold.

“In my country, we eat the goats. We don’t race them.”

A West African acquaintance said this to me as the sun started to set on the goat races. If you’re living in a country (and region) that most Americans know very little about, it can be tempting to burden all of your experiences with more semiotic weight than they can really carry. I asked if he meant that this was all some mzungu bullshit? No, he said, he just found it bizarre. Yeah, it is pretty bizarre.


I spent a lot of time at the goat races trying to entrap expats into saying politically incorrect things, or to offer reasoned critiques of expat culture here in Tanzania. They said predictable things, variously “problematic” or studiously “correct.” The goat races’ relative decadence, and Tanzania’s ever-glaring systemic imbalances, makes for the kind of potent identity-political brew from which so many lofty and circuitous conversations are distilled. Living here makes you less clever about all of that—you start to realize that “getting” Tanzania is no easier than getting the United States, and your impulse to pontificate either decays or becomes a sly game. So here it is: I had a lot of fun at the goat races.

A sherwani-clad Liverpudlian named Lee and his sari-wearing Korean friend, Myung Su, told me that they dislike how so much of expat life tend towards elitism in practice, and perhaps also by design. “I’m here living a life of privilege, but it’s down to where I’m from, not down to any inherent superiority of my character,” Lee said. My handwriting on that part of my notes is almost illegible. The racing itself was over, and I was fumbling with a giant Pimm’s cup, trying not to choke on the little apple cubes. I did not actually see staff members carting away the goats. Lee and I were just day-drinking, moving toward sunset-drinking.


Connor Wroe Southard is a writer living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Top image via YouTube.

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