Winter 2007

Drive-by dreams

The ancient trucks that ply the roads of Mali and Senegal offer a moving show of landscapes far removed from reality

‘This truck is older than me,’ laughs 25-year-old Mamadou Seye, pointing to the mechanical yellow workhorse behind him. Ornately decorated with hand-painted motifs – pineapples, the Senegalese flag and a lion – Seye’s truck is attention-grabbing, yet also unremarkable. The dusty plot where he is parked, which doubles as a weekend football pitch, is filled with similarly adorned trucks, all of them old, each of them quietly baking in the morning sun.

Situated on a bend of the Senegal River in western Mali, Kayes is the hottest town in Africa. It is also an essential stopover for truckers ferrying goods between the Malian capital of Bamako and the port city of Dakar in neighbouring Senegal. It is not uncommon to see groups of truckers sleeping by the roadside.

Nationalities are easy to distinguish. The yellow trucks, decorated in a style similar to Dakar’s taxi-buses, are Senegalese. Aside from ornate floral designs, they eulogise sport (the lion is shorthand for the national football team) and religion. Stickers and posters portraying religious leaders from the influential Muslim brotherhoods complement stern Koranic verses painted on to the bodies of vehicles.

By comparison, the Malian trucks are positively austere. One stock trope, often painted on a mud-flap or battery hatch, depicts a truck, normally with two occupants, passing through an idealised African landscape; a mix of domestic and wild animals, some purely symbolic, will finish off these documentary fantasies.

Typically painted by self-taught sign-writers, of which Africa has a great tradition, much of the imagery becomes repetitive, if not thoroughly generic. Sekouba Kone’s ‘rabbit-pi’ offers a moment of reprieve. ‘I used to breed rabbits before I became a driver,’ he says, recalling his youth in a village outside Bamako. ‘I had six rabbits – one day a thief stole all of them.’ His charming mnemonic cost him CFA4000 (£4.25), about a tenth of his monthly wage as a driver.