We achieved the record for a ‘sept places’ (seven-seater) the other day. This is considered the most luxurious form of transport in this part of West Africa. It consists of a Peugeot or Renault estate car slightly modified with an extra row of seats where the boot should be. It is designed to seat seven plus the driver.
If you are seated in the front or middle rows, it is fairly comfortable, provided of course that you don’t object to clouds of dust billowing in through the uncloseable windows, chickens pecking around your feet, or spray from the driver’s spittle occasionally flying in your face.
If you are seated in the back, however, it is less luxurious. You then have to choose either to bend your legs double in front of you so that they are folded tight against your chest (and these cars never stop during the journey, so your knees may be folded for seven hours straight, as mine were on our first sept places journey), or to put your legs on the floor and instead have your head rammed up hard against the metal ceiling. Shifting from one buttock to the other, moreover, to avoid contracting haemmorhoids from the rock-hard seats, is impossible – there is no room.
The middle row is only comfortable, of course, if the driver sticks to the 7-person limit. Often, however, he cannot resist the temptation to fit a few more in. Sometimes there are four people in a row designed to squeeze in three, turning the sept places into a neuf places. This is uncomfortable, but not the worst of all possible worlds.
The other day our driver allowed no less than 16 passengers (plus 3 chickens) into one of these cars. There were people standing up! They were leaning from the rear row over the middle row, where Ebru and I were seated with three others and the chickens. Astonishingly, nobody complained when we stopped to let in more passengers – when there are fourteen of you in a car designed for seven, after all, a couple more bodies doesn’t make that much difference.
The driver was not satisfied with our discomfort. He decided to make the journey even more challenging by giving us a demonstration of his driving skills. He seemed to have only recently passed (or bribed his way through) his driving test, for he looked extremely nervous. Sweat poured down his long hooked nose from under his white Muslim cap. He gripped the wheel tightly, and hunched over it to be closer to the road surface. Then, every time he reached down to change gear, he lost control and the car veered into the middle of the road. This behaviour provoked some complaints from the passengers; we were lucky the road was virtually deserted, so that when he regained control of the wheel we were still intact.
Near the end of the journey, a rotund, stern-looking woman passenger asks him to stop to let her out. “Where?” he asked. “At the mango tree.” The road is lined on both sides, as far as the eye can see, with mango trees. “Which one?” asks the hapless driver, gripping the wheel and staring intently ahead. “That one there, straight ahead,” the woman replies, tutting at the driver’s stupidity. He keeps driving, bemused, sweat pouring down his black robe, until she shouts, “This one! Stop!” We screech to a halt, and are down to a more comfortable 15 again…