It’s time at last. Well, the time announced over three-quarters of an hour ago. The once deserted platform is now teeming with a compact and colorful crowd. Laughter, insults, dust, the rustling of boubous and the creaking of sandals overfills the space. The train barely has time to stop when passengers are already doing all sorts of acrobatics in order to get the best seats and besiege the luggage-holders. Breathless runs. Headbutts, elbow ramming, beak pecking. An endless whistle-blow announces the imminent departure and its stridulating morphs into tinnitus in my ears. I wanted to avoid the stampede but it might be the last moment to get into the iron monster. I am almost the last to climb the step, practically backwards. Practically as the train moves off, practically as the heavy metal door shuts. The noise hurts my ears but I have made it on the other side. On the side of the one leaving, who is taking the trip. But something of me has stayed on the platform and is sadly watching me move away.
The convoy moves off. The time for the last passengers to settle down, to stretch, to take out the playing cards, the cassette-player or the camping stove to prepare the tea. Soon, we leave the capital. We taunt the opposite line of cars stuck fender to fender for kilometers, trapping the commuters at the gates of the city as we make for the countryside.
Very soon, the rocking of the wagons has a soothing effect on me. I feel a calm growing in me, my mind lulled by this background sound and the flat, monotonous, sun-burnt Sahel landscape where each panorama looks a little more like the next. My eyelids grow heavy, my spirit lowers its guard, and this hubbub seeps into my willing ears, into my deeper self, like an opaque and insidious smoke separating my tormented thoughts from the rest of my body. Relentless jabber. Permanent acoustic carpet. A slight headache now presses against my temples. No pocket of silence to shelter my aching head. The noise is inescapable. In the trunks that are dragged on the metal floor, in the cascading laughter bouncing off the windows, in the hysterical crying of a baby… I have never understood the need that my fellow countrymen have to fill in every single crack in space, to cover it with decibels, to push back silence into a corner in order to fill the air with useful or idle talk, with mute or blaring music, no matter, as long as there is noise. Wetaye is the worst punishment for a healthy man. Its adepts are necessarily anti-social, depressive, or the direct descendants of troglodytes…
“J’irai à Rufisque, regarder le cirque”, “I will go to Rufisque, to watch the circus…”
First stop in the outskirts of Dakar, in Rufisque, the industrious suburb and only link between the peninsula and the continent. A new batch of passengers plays elbow to find a free space in wagons that are already full. Among them are about thirty young women probably belonging to the same dahira, all dressed in white, their heads covered under the grafting, wearing the picture of their serigne as a medallion around their necks. The flashy jewelry collides and clashes with their immaculate outfits. Impervious to the local chaos, they spread out in the car like chickens in a farm and pile up as they can before their words dissolve in the surrounding hubbub.
The train now passes behind the cement factory. The high-necked chimneys spit out gray smoke that blends with the clouds and mixes with the metallic dragon’s breath. Was there ever a circus in Rafisque, as the nursery rhyme claims, or was it just for the rhyme? For the mnemonic effect it would produce inside our little fuzzy heads?
“… regarder le cirque”, “… to watch the circus” In reality, it’s my life that has become a circus. Just because I decided to untangle it from its origins. And since then its threads are getting all mixed up like a ball of wool in the claws of a kitten. I was a twenty-eight year old independent, balanced, headstrong and all in all, happy woman. Assistant professor at the university, from a middle-class family, united and loving, surrounded by friends and even suitors. And then…
We arrive at the Cité du Rail, the second stop for the Express train to saint Louis. As soon as the train enters the station it is attacked by a swarm of vendors. Stale bread, sweets, chilled bissap with too much sugar. The vendors twirl around the tracks, carelessly trampling the rails, impervious to the station master’s wrathful injunctions. The boldest climb into the train and walk the aisles, tacking between the descending passengers and their luggage. Their legs are covered with white dust to mid calf. Only the station master’s insistent whistle-blowing makes them get off again.
Again we follow the path traced by the tracks, straight ahead, deeper into the country and the continent. Inexorably, I leave my former life behind. The Express, which is only an express by name, has now attained its cruising speed, which is that of a snail. My thoughts escape and return once more to the man I am going to meet. Maybe the last piece of the puzzle. This man, who some say was handsome, enough at least to make two women’s hearts flutter. This man who is the same age as my father Tidiane. At least he is slightly younger than Badara…
The nursery rhyme trots in my head. “J’irai à Dakar…”, “I will go to Dakar…” The old tune ambles along “… prendre l’autocar”, “to take the bus”. Gallops forward “J’irai à Rufisque…”, “I will go to Rufisque…” and now rears up like a chestnut mare “… regarder le cirque”, “… to watch the circus.” Me, I’m only a spectator, and the tricks do not amuse me terribly.
Ten long minutes later Tivouane reveals its holy minarets. Tivouane, third stop. I am wondering now if I’m in an express or in a local train. At this rate I will never make it to my rendezvous. Will he come?
I must admit I am quite happy to see the members of the dahira get off the train. During this part of the trip, their conversations have left us with no mystery. They have very fast left the religious matters behind to switch to the profane, even to the very profane. After the cooking recipes came the seduction tips that were so crude I prudishly looked away.
The train is still motionless. The conversations stop little by little and some passengers stick their heads out of the windows, twisting their necks to find out what is going on. Gradually, the grapevine starts: it seems to be a mechanical failure. The duration of the stop is undetermined. That is the last straw! Only solution: to grin and bear it, as we are not mechanics. The mango vendors, probably tired from holding out their trays, sit down one by one on the platform and resume their conversations.
The train coughs, hiccups, sneezes, but starts again. Phew, we must now make up our time. We must run after the precious minutes lost, climb up the hourglass instead of turning it upside down. Oh yes, if only I could…
 Loneliness.  Religious association,  Religious guide.  Thiès’s nickname, because of the importance of the railroad in the town’s history.