sept-place: (French) a taxi with room for seven passengers used to make longer journeys in Senegal, literally “seven places”
Embarking on my weekend journey to Thiès, just over an hour out of Dakar, I decide to take a sept-place—really the only economical and somewhat comfortable option, compared to a private taxi or a bus. This, I am told, is the real Senegalese experience.
Arriving at the Gare Beaux-Maraîchers, in the outskirts of Dakar, I find myself plunged into a world of chaos. Dozens and dozens of beat-up old Peugeots, equipped with roof racks loaded up with furniture and luggage and even goats wait lined up; Senegalese bustle around. Men run around shouting names of destinations: Kaolack! Saint-Louis! Diourbel! Touba!
Thiès? Thiès? I shout desperately into the crowd. Before I know it I am whisked away by a wizened old man and find myself stashed in the far left-hand back corner of a battered white sept-place, bewildered and awaiting the ride ahead…
* * *
Finding yourself in a car with seven other strangers (six passengers plus the driver) for a ride of over an hour is really quite an experience. My first sept-place, on the way to Thiès, is a lively microcosm of the Senegalese life. Squeezed with me in the back row is a fifty-something-year-old French woman revisiting the country of her youthful volunteer days; beside her sits a young, bratty Nigerian guy in his early twenties. Three Senegalese women occupy the middle row with their babies, and in the shotgun seat sits a Senegalese businessman. The car is full of chatter. The businessman chats up the driver. The upstart Nigerian has lost all his identity papers—a real emergency, in fact—because he stupidly left them in his luggage, which got stolen. He doesn’t seem appropriately worried and is given a stern talking-to by the mothers.
When the Nigerian boy blames Senegal for losing his luggage—it’s your country’s fault—the women sternly reprimand him. It’s not our country, it’s you! One mother says. Senegal is the land of peace, of coexistence, of teranga (hospitality), of ceebu jënn! Don’t blame us for your stupidity! Sitting in my back corner, taking in the conversation, I think about how wonderful and enjoyable the sept-place experience can be.
* * *
However, my return trip is not so pleasant. The heat in Thiès is sweltering. I am once again smushed in the back left corner of a sept-place, but somehow this one seems smaller and less comfortable than the first. Maybe because instead of a woman next to me, it is a man—a polite, old one, but a man who takes up more room than a lady nonetheless. And the heat, oh the heat.
In this black, dark sept-place, the heat is nearly unbearable. I feel like I am melting underneath my clothes, and my face is soaked. As we screech across bumpy roads, I close my eyes and try to bear it. I am deeply dehydrated—sept-places don’t stop for bathroom breaks if they can help it, so I haven’t drank much before this.
The windows are open but the wind is a hot, dry wind. The wind sweeps across the yellow and brown landscape outside, sweeps across the spiny, parched acacia trees, across the primordial baobabs. It blows hot dust into my eyes and face and even with my eyes closed, there is no hint of coolness. It doesn’t brush the heat from my skin as much as slap it with a face-ful of dust.
In the corner of my eye, I watch the one other girl in the sept-place—a headscarf-clad Senegalese girl—thumb through her rosary beads. I guess if you are stuck in an oven-like car for an hour, it is as good a time as any to say your prayers, precisely one thousand of them. But all I can think about it is the heat, my legs falling asleep in my cramped corner, the heat, the heat, the heat.
When I finally stumble out of my sept-place into the dusty streets of Dakar, it is almost a relief. So there you have it—the good and the bad of a sept-place. While it may not always be enjoyable, it is a necessary experience if you’re in Senegal!