If you’re getting around the country on public transport, you’ll notice very quickly that there’s no such thing as a plain vehicle on the streets of Senegal. No matter the age or condition, cars and trucks are decorated with a panoply of saints, slogans, tassels, tails and stickers to reflect the driver’s credo, provide good luck or even beseech divine intervention in the case of an accident (there’s clearly a calculation made between the percentage of windscreen blocked by holy images versus the percentage of protection provided by their presence).
Cars and trucks are decorated to reflect the driver's credo © Sean Connolly
While the whole car gets the decorative treatment, it’s the back bumper that represents one of the preferred canvases for Senegal’s modish motorists, and the space almost never goes to waste. Firstly, the bumper itself is typically daubed with at least one pithy Wolof or Arabic saying, including favourites like jamm rekk (peace only), door waar (hard worker) or the perennially popular alhamdoulillahi (thanks be to God), but dangling below these words of wisdom, just high enough to keep from dragging on the road, you might find anything from a colourfully painted strip of rubber to a cow’s tail or even a (singular) baby shoe.
Perhaps the most inscrutable elements of the whole scheme, the secret of these automotive amulets eluded me for nearly my entire stay in Senegal, until I finally asked Lamine, a Senegalese friend who I thought might be in the know, what the donkey tails were actually for. Whether he was more shocked that I couldn’t tell the diff erence between a cow’s and a donkey’s tail, or that I would even suggest something as ridiculous as hanging a donkey tail from one’s car, I’m still not sure, but it turns out they’re nothing more than a simple good luck charm – something like the vehicular version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. The baby shoes are also for good luck, but, perhaps sensing my ignorance, Lamine pre-empted my question and quickly informed me that these too had a set of rules, and that all the shoes you see dangling are for the left foot and the left foot only. I stifled my question about where in Senegal the enormous pile of right-footed baby shoes was, but my quick assumption that the third element of the back bumper trio of talismans, the colourful rubber strips, must also be for good luck was quickly shot down – those, apparently, are just there to look pretty.