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A shared-taxi ride across West Africa

It took three men to wrestle the goat to the ground. A newly sharpened machete was produced from the leather holster on one of the mens hips. Struggling to keep him pinned down they moved in quickly, cutting deep into the throat as blood flooded out mixing with the already red sahel dust in the bush. The body went into its death throes, lit only by the hastily made bon fire on the side of the road. After twenty-seconds there was no more kicking or thrashing around. The three men continued their work. Hacking through what remained of tendons and spinal cord the head became fully dismembered and tossed onto the fire.

Bush taxis in West Africa are often one of the highlights of any trip to the region. These are basically shared taxis used to cover longer distances. They don’t run on timetables but rather, leave whenever they are full which can take between twelve and twenty passengers. So it is not uncommon to have to wait hours or a couple of days for your journey to get underway.

Doors hang by rusting hinges, engines fail frequently but the brakes DO work most of the time. Mountains of luggage, including livestock, are strapped to the roof and huge bags of rice are pretty much everywhere. If there is an inch of space available it will be filled.

Some of the drivers employ kids as helpers. Their job is to tell the driver when to stop to let people off and to help with the luggage. This involves climbing out of the windows onto the luggage on the roof while the taxi bumps along the untarmaced road. Then swinging back in to keep an eye on things inside. It must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

This standard of vehicle is commonplace, so it was with no great surprise that I found myself on an ailing coach coughing and wheezing out of a station in Bamako.

This heap of scrap, with ‘Kingui’ (pronounced ‘kinky’) painted on the side, was to take me the 1050 km from Bamako in Mali to Dakar in Senegal. After a relatively short wait of twelve hours everyone boarded. Every inch of space occupied with people and luggage.

I found myself sitting beside an unusual man from Ghana who sang everything he wanted to say.

*”Hiiiiiii. Do-do-do-do-de. Where are you from? Do-do-do-do-de” he would chirp.

”Im from Ireland” I responded. ”Where are you traveling to?”

*”I am gooooooOOOOing to Dakar. De-da-dum-dum. To see-he my faaaaaAAAmily-he.”*

This was incredibly amusing and took my mind off the sweltering heat and the fact I was almost chewing my knees due to lack of leg room.

After the third attempt we made it up the exit ramp and joined the mayhem that is Bamako traffic with gears grinding and suspension squeaking. Any suggestion of a hill on the road slowed us down to a snails pace. The engine revved like a rusty garden strimmer as the kinky coach clambered up, struggling to keep pace with passing donkeys. After several hours of struggle we made it to the outskirts of the city and into the sub saharan countryside. Vast parched landscape surrounded us with mud huts dotted here and there. The weird and towering Baobab trees made for impressive viewing along the way.

Tarmac and level tracks have slipped into the realms of myth out there. Huge car sized craters appear every thirty or forty meters forcing the bus to surface and dive like a submarine. Leaving a cloud of red clay in its wake.

As the sun began to set we found ourselves truly in the middle of nowhere. Sahel dust and scorched plants as far as you could see in any direction.

Then all of a sudden the kinky bus came to an abrupt stop. The driver got out and began pelting the bus with kicks and shouting french expletives. All the passengers got off the bus and stood around talking. It was explained to me that it’s not unusual to be stuck for two or three days. “You either fix the problem or wait for help to pass by.”

As though this had happened them a thousand times before people started rolling out mats that they carry everywhere and lay down. Men crawled under the bus hitting it in various places with various tools in a futile attempt to fix the bus. An albino man sat crossed legged in the dust and began playing his guitar. A crowd soon gathered around him and women made impromptu drums out of overturned mixing bowls. All together they started singing in that beautiful harmonic African style while I lay against a dying tree and took it all in. Being stuck here for three days didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

Night fell and still no sign of fixing the bus. People started asking around about what food there was among us. Some crackers, biscuits and decaying fruit was all that twenty of us could bring together. I started drinking water to kill the pangs in my stomach.

Then, out of the darkness, a nomad happened to be passing with a flock of goats. The driver ran over to him to talk. An agreement was reached to sell us one of his goats to eat. There was a whip-round and whoever wanted some meat threw in a bit of money.

Everyone got to work. Three men went among the goats feeling for fat and lifting them up to find to meatiest among them. People cut wood off from the dead trees and leaves from the scorched plants. Soon there was a raging fire lighting up the darkness.

Eventually the men decided on one unfortunate fellow. Since I was just standing around like a big tourist the goat was handed to me to hold by the horns as the men sharpened their machetes. He was calm and completive looking. The men then took him from me and tried to force him to the ground but the goat put up a good fight, trying to kick and butt his way out of their grasp. At last they grabbed his four legs, flipped him onto his back and tangled his legs together in such a way that he couldn’t stand again. Then, with a swift motion, one of the men sliced into the throat. And, before long, he was dead.

It was amazing watching the men butcher the goat with such precision. Nothing went to waste. The goats head was removed and thrown onto the fire to cook. They cut through the fibers connecting the muscles to the skin which came away all in one white wooly piece. This was then fanned over the fire to dry to be used again in the future as a throw rug in someones home. Gutting the animal came next. The intestines and organs were removed, thrown into a bowl and washed thoroughly. Chunks of meat were cut and placed onto the dying embers of the fire.

As everyone waited for the meat to cook a young boy of about ten cut the impressively large testicles off the goat. He then pierced them with a twig, sat down beside the fire and roasted them marshmallow style.

*”Do-hoo you like testicles? Do-de-do-do-doooo.”* came the familiar voice. I erupted laughing and politely refused.

Soon the meat was cooked, seasoned with salt and pepper and distributed to everyone who pitched in. We sat around the fire singing, eating and chatting. Forgetting all about our trouble with the bus.

Had there been a steady supply of goats I would have happily stayed there for a couple of weeks.

Feeling adequately stuffed I lay in the dust quite content, looking at the head still roasting and the skewered testicles being licked by the flames. One man briskly removed the head from the fire juggling it back and forth between his hands. Using his machete he sliced the head vertically all the way through and began scooping out the brains with his hands, eating them and passing them around.

After many more hours a familiar squeaking and crashing sound came out of the darkness. A hint of light could be seen in the distance. An old bus was approaching, goats tied to the roof, doors held in place with rope and one or two padded seats. This was our only opportunity to leave, so everyone clambered aboard the already packed bus for a further 28 hours tough traveling to Dakar.

Like the captain of a sinking ship the driver stayed with his kinky bus.

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