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If You Think This Bus Has An Eye On You, You're Right

For 50 years, the fast and cheap "car rapide" minibus, painted from stem to stern, has become a national symbol for Senegal.

The buses have eyes.

They're the "cars rapides" – a fleet of distinctive, hand-painted minibuses that have become a national symbol in Senegal. True to their name, they're fast-moving vehicles. And almost all of them are decorated with a pair of eyes on the front and rear.

One artist who paints the cars says the goal is to humanize them: "It's just like my face, with a nose and a mouth — with an extra pair of eyes at the back."

The colorful 12-seat vehicles have become a trademark in the capital, Dakar, and other cities. But blink and you may miss them. The government is planning to phase out the cars rapides by 2018 because they're old and need to be replaced with buses that can hold more passengers.

The vehicles have been zooming down roads of Dakar and other towns for more than half a century, says driver Moustapha Kane, "during my grandparents' time." Passengers and conductors sometimes perilously hang off the backs and sides of the overcrowded vehicles.

The popular minibuses — in bright blues, whites, yellows, oranges, reds and greens — are symbols of Senegalese art on the move. In addition to eyes that look directly at you, they're adorned with names, mostly of Muslim religious leaders and their disciples — Mame Diarra Bousso, Khalifa Ababacar Sy. Taalibe Cheikh. Societe Musulmane. Almost all have "Alhamdoulilahi" (Give thanks to God) painted on them as well as depictions of flags, horses, eagles and intricate designs.

Kalidou Diallo, aka "Neyoo," is a car rapide painter who also does murals, like the one behind the bus.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton / NPR
Kalidou Diallo, aka "Neyoo," is a car rapide painter who also does murals, like the one behind the bus.

The gas cap is padlocked and painted with an extra flourish.

Kalidou Diallo, 33, is a meticulous car rapide artist known by his nickname Neyoo, Wearing a t-shirt splattered with paint, he says he has been hand-decorating the minibuses for 17 years, first under the guidance of his uncle, then with his cousin.

The minibuses have been rumbling along the roads for decades. Many have 25 years under their belts and are getting old, rickety — even dangerous — say Senegal's transport authorities, which is why they're being pensioned off.

Neyoo says he regrets it'll soon be the end of the road for the cars rapides.

"What can you do," he asks, "when the authorities want to modernize and draft in newer buses?" "But will passengers be able to afford the fares?" he wonders out loud. No other form of transport, except maybe a horse and cart, is cheaper than the cars rapides.

Murmuring under his breath, Neyoo complains that officials have no idea how indispensable the mass transit minibuses are for cash-strapped Senegalese, "because they sit in their 4-wheel vehicles, playing with their expensive mobile phones, with the air conditioner on full blast, and have never taken a car rapide."

Passengers like Celestine Awa Diatta, speak fondly about the ubiquitous minibuses.

"I jump on the cars rapides all the time," she says as she bundles herself into the back of one, rushing to pick up a child from school. "They're affordable, that's why you see so many people lining up to take a ride for a few cents."

Diatta says the eye-catching cars rapides efficiently ferry her and her family around Dakar. She's philosophical about the fact that she may soon have to find another way to get about town.

Pape Omar Pouye helped paint the car rapide that's displayed in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton / NPR
Pape Omar Pouye helped paint the car rapide that's displayed in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

Pape Omar Pouye, one of the artists who paints the cars rapides, says phasing out the legendary minibuses will mark the end of an era. But he believes their legacy will endure, because they have become a mirror of Dakar and a symbol of Senegal, where key chains, trays and plates are sold depicting the buses. And that's not the only way the art of the buses is celebrated. Pouye helped paint the Senegalese car rapide on display at the Musee de l'Homme — the Museum of Mankind — in Paris.

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