Transportation: Getting Around Senegal

Modes of transportation in Senegal, including price and relative reliability.

occasionally SUVs have an urban purpose

For private transportation, mopeds and motorcycles are popular in rural areas, and can be found in big cities as well. In Dakar, gas-guzzling 4WD SUVs are just as common as sedans since they are safer during the rainy season floods.

But even the average homeowner can’t afford private transportation unless it’s walking, an unpopular choice due to the harsh climate. Bicycling is even rarer thanks to reckless driving and lack of bike lanes. Personally, I’ve relied on walking and a mix of the following modes of public transportation:

INTRACITY

blue public bus

Blue public buses (150CFA, [exchange rate roughly 500CFA = $1]) come every 30-60 minutes during the daytime. Smaller white public buses (200CFA) come more often but these buses don’t go many places. These buses get face-squashed-in-window packed.

…and that’s it! That’s the extent of public public transportation in Senegal. Thanks, government. The rest of the country’s intracity (and some intercity) public transportation is privately run by the economically powerful Mouride brotherhood.

car rapides downtown

The colorful blue and yellow car rapide is one of Senegal’s symbols. They are the opposite of rapide and instead frequently stop and drive at slow speeds. Each one is painted differently, but they all proclaim “ALHAMDOULILAH,” praise be to God, across their fronts.

Car rapides cost between 50 to 200CFA depending on where you’re going. To ride one, first go to one of the hubs where they all tend to stop. Sometimes these hubs are where the official public bus stop signs are, and sometimes they are marked only by the cluster of people waiting there. If you’re really skilled, you don’t even have to be at a hub to make them stop – just flag hard. Once a car rapide has slowed down near you, yell out your destination to the apprenti hanging out of the back of the car. If your destination is on the way, he’ll wave at you to get on and you’ll pay when he comes around to collect money. Tap hard on the metal frame with a coin or something else clangy when you want to get off.

White ndiaga ndiayes operate the same way but go slightly longer distances and wait until they fill up before they leave. My peers have referred to these two systems as mass paid hitchhiking, which is pretty accurate.

black and yellow, black and yellow

If you look like you need a ride (and toubabs always look like they need a ride), passing black and yellow taxis will honk at you to let you know that they’re empty. These decrepit cars can have shattered or missing windshields, windows that don’t roll up or down, and/or steering wheels that pop off. The occasional taxi will be in good enough condition that none of those conditions apply; however, never expect working seat belts, let alone a working meter. Standard practice is to bargain with the driver through the passenger window for a price (500-3000CFA, usually 1000-2000CFA). To get the best price, you’ll need to refuse the driver’s “final” offer and pretend to hail another taxi; by the time you make it to the back of his car to wave your arm, he’ll honk at you to get in at your final offer. Be ready to have exact change and to help direct your driver to your destination; often, they don’t know how to get there.

One last note: I’ve already personally witnessed a handful of accidents when the streets have been empty.

INTERCITY (Bush Taxis)

sept-place, coffin not usually included

Sept-places are my favorite option, striking midway between price and comfort. These Peugeot 504 station wagons officially seat seven, but are very comfortable for six. Sept-places charge a set price per seat, but you’ll bargain for how much your luggage costs – even if you don’t have much, you’ll need to pay as it’s how the drivers make money. Similar to taxi negotiation, you may have to feign walking off in order to get a non-toubab luggage price. If you have four to six people in your party, it’s easiest and most comfortable to buy out the extra seats since sept-places only leave once they’re filled up, and drivers sometimes decide to take more than seven passengers. You can buy out a sept-place, including luggage, from Dakar to Tambacounda for 70,000CFA (10,000CFA/seat), or all the way to Kédougou for 112,000CFA (16,000CFA/seat).

Minibus

If you can’t afford a seat in a sept-place, minibuses are your uncomfortable alternative. Drivers squeeze four or five or seven (children are theoretically infinitely miscible) people onto a row meant for three or four. That doesn’t sound that bad but it’s not something you want to put up with for more than four humid baking hours, and remember that four-hour trips can easily turn into six-hour trips. You also have no control over a 20-person vehicle in terms of pit stops, or you may find that your driver has decided to take an extended unannounced lunch break. In addition, waiting for a 20-person vehicle to fill up, even from Dakar, takes hours. If you’re reading this, you probably have the resources to buy yourself a recommended and slightly more comfortable seat in a sept-place. A minibus from Dakar to Fimla or Ndangane in the Sine-Saloum costs 2000CFA plus a negotiable 200CFA for luggage.

Rural areas also make use of intercity minibuses that operate on a daily or when-filled basis.

loaded charette

OTHER
Horse-drawn carts are a popular method of lugging cargo around Dakar, and were the only form of land transportation on Mar Lodj (500-1000CFA), an island in the Sine-Saloum. Horses easily maneuver unpaved roads and can lug heavy loads, though they are appreciably slower than motorized forms of transport. Rural areas tend to use cheaper donkeys or mules instead of horses for their smaller loads.

small pirogue to Île de Madeleine

Ferries and motorized pirogues are used for going to Gorée (5000CFA, roundtrip) and the Île de Madeleine (4000-5000CFA negotiable, roundtrip), respectively. Crossing rivers is also done in pirogues, with prices (500-1500CFA) varying depending on distance.

There are a few airports around Senegal, but I’m not going to use them unless I’m flying internationally. Even Dakar’s airport is shockingly underdeveloped and disorganized. Delays are common. I also see people riding in boxes in the backs of trucks but I’m not sure how to book a truckseat yet; you’ll be able to get around fine with the above options.

Just keep in mind that delays are the rule rather than the exception and that negotiation is your right (hold firm if you think they’re overcharging you; you can always come back), and you’ll navigate the system easily. Please leave any questions or requests for advice in the comments section!

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12 responses to “Transportation: Getting Around Senegal

  1. Awesome post, I ate it all up! That blue bus looks shiny and newer than some of the stuff we have here.

    You’ve included a lot of fascinating cultural insights here, especially in describing the semi-structured taxi/non-taxi/ridesharing system. We have something similar in our taxi system in DC, where cab drivers haggle with each other at Union Station over which passengers they don’t want to take to certain parts of town, and wait until the cab fills up with strangers before leaving. Minus the clangy banging part. With the lack of institutionalization you described, it seems like ANYONE could be a taxi (assuming they dodge the Mouride brotherhood, I assume?)

    be safe on those roads!

    • Yes, the blue buses are indeed swanky. I think my program’s assistant director said that they were made possible thanks to recent funding from India.
      I can hardly believe that the DC taxi system exists in America! Hopefully full cabs leads to reduced taxi rates, but I hear from my DC friends here that taxis are extremely expensive in DC.
      I do think that anyone could be a taxi if they painted their car yellow. However, it’s a matter of barrier of entry – the reason why the Mouride brotherhood runs the whole taxi system is because taxi drivers pay 10kCFA ($20, which doesn’t sound like much but when the market is saturated, and you charge $2-4 per ride and have to cover gas, sometimes the daily fee eats up the entire day’s profits) to rent out those clanky cars. If someone had enough capital to buy a car and paint it yellow, they’d probably choose some other avenue of business.

      Thanks for the inspiration to write this post, Stephen! I hope your interest in public transportation over here is related to your wishes to improve public transportation stateside!

  2. Hi Katarina, thank you for such an informative post. i felt i was transported for a hot minuet in to the sound colors and atmosphere of travel in Senegal. if so are you still there and do you speak french too. i would like to know if you have written anything else on areas of a travelers life in Senegal.

      • hi Katarina, thanks for your response, i asked if you spoke french not because i do but because you had a subtle English sense of humor that is not so common among french people. i know people predominantly speak french there in Senegal and i wondered if it would be very difficult to get around on your own just speaking English. i am a Jamaican but i have been living in England for quite some time. i am planning to do some work in Senegal and i found your three series blog after all and found it quit interesting and informative. do you have any plans in going back to Senegal in the near future.

        TONY.

  3. Wow, it’s so cool that you picked up on that! It would definitely be more difficult to get around if you just spoke English, but if you learned the names of places you’d probably be fine, especially in Dakar. Frankly, people are so nice that they’d probably find someone who could speak some English, but the educated class speaks French + Wolof + perhaps another West African language, and then English fluency would come after that.

  4. Hello Katarina, I like your sense of humor and thoroughly enjoyed this article. I move to Dakar tomorrow and had a couple of questions. Do the blue public buses have established routes? If yes, how would one find that out? Also how easy is it find an empty black and yellow taxi? Thanks.

    • Hi Vanessa, thanks for the compliment and congratulations on your move! The blue public buses do indeed have established routes, but the best way to understand the routes is probably just to ask around. They should at least have a final destination (direction) in the window.

      Finding an empty black and yellow taxi is extremely easy – it’s a buyer’s market, especially in popular areas. And if you look like a foreigner they’ll come and find you.

  5. Hello,
    I found this article very beautiful and very descriptive…

    I am going to Dakar at the end of the month for a full week and would like to take the chance to visit apiece of Africa, such as museums (any recommendation?), I’d like to go to the Goree Island (are pirogues safe or should I stick to the big boat?) I’d like to eat the food from there rather than restaurants with same stuff we eat everywhere, give me advice,

    Thank you, Adoloh

    • Hi Adolph,

      It’s so exciting to hear you’re visiting Dakar for a full week! I personally don’t have any experience visiting museums aside the “museum” that is Goree Island. I would take the ferry because it’s likely affordable enough and faster.

      As for the latest on the Dakarois food scene, check out dakareats.com! You might also enjoy my article on Senegalese food.

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