I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In Brazzaville and Kinshasa, a sub-culture of men has taken to wearing expensive and stylish clothes. The trend is called La Sape and it is spreading to women and to African countries other than the two Congos.
Echoes of Colonialism
France and Belgium colonized vast areas of Africa around the Congo River basin. As with all colonizing nations, they viewed the Indigenous Africans as an inferior race.
During the 1920s, young African men began to combat the racist attitudes of their masters by rejecting the second-hand clothes they were often given instead of wages. They took the style of the colonial overseers, exaggerated it, and made it their own.
Historian Didier Gondola credits a young man named Camille Diata as a major influencer of the trend. Later, the Congolese singer Papa Wemba (1949-2016) popularized the style.
The fashion is called La Sape (pronounced sap), which is an acronym of Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. A translation could be the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People. There is also a hint of a French slang word for clothes, sape. The name was created by Stervos Niarcos Ngashie, who died in 1995.
Today, sapeurism has been exported from its birthplace along the Congo River to other African countries and there are ex-patriot sapeur communities in Paris, London, and other European capitals.
White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.
Attributed to Papa Wemba
The Essence of Sapeurism
The centres of the style are Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring Republic of the Congo. Both countries are impoverished and plagued by civil wars.
The chaos and poverty do not deter the sapeurs from adopting their dandy-style of dress. They wear “bright-coloured suits, bow ties, monocles, suspenders, sunglasses, silky shirts, and colourful hats. Life as a sapeur is nothing but extravagant fashion choices” (Victoire Douniama, Culture Trip). Vibrant colour coordination is an important element, as are matching accessories such as a top hat, pocket square, furled umbrella, or cane.
An RT documentary follows a sapeur as he strolls through his slum in a vivid red suit, calling himself “The King of Colours. When I wear my bright suits I look splendid. In my area people are shouting ‘The God of clothes. The God of sape.’ ”
Sapeurs adopt a swaggering walk sometimes interspersed by small shuffling steps. They greet one another with gentle forehead-to-forehead contact.
Despite their expensive wardrobes, these men are not rich; they are the backbone of any society, carpenters, taxi drivers, plumbers, and farmers. Juliette Lyons writes (Le Journal International) that “a sapeur has to be non-violent, well mannered, and an inspiration through their attitude and behaviour.”
A Way of Life
Noé Michalon of Clique TV caught up with Ben Moukacha, a major figure in sape culture in Paris. M. Moukacha has gone so far as to write the 10 Commandments of Sapeology. Among its dictates are:
- “Thou shalt practice La Sape on Earth with humans and in heaven with God thy creator.
- “Thou shalt demonstrate stringent standards of hygiene in thy body and clothes.
- “Thou shalt not be tribalistic, nationalist, racist or discriminatory.
- “Thou shalt not be violent or insolent.
- “Thou shalt abide by the Sapelogists’ rules of civility and respect thy elders.”
- As Ben Moukacha puts it, being a sapeur is “a way of behaving, a philosophy, an art of living that unites us and promotes peace.”
A Positive Expression
At times, these dazzling, dressed-to-kill characters were frowned upon, but today they are admired.
According to a 2014 article in the Le Journal International, the sapeurs represent “stability and tranquility amidst the turmoil [and] indicate a return to life after years of civil war, representing a sign of better things. Their exuberant flamboyance serves as a lighting rod for the Congolese disenfranchised youth, guiding it away from Third World Status to a modern cosmopolitanism.”
But, acquiring J.M. Weston shoes at more than $1,000 a pair, or the à la mode hat from Italy comes at a price that is sometimes paid by the sapeur’s family. Poverty is the close neighbour to most of the shantytowns that the Congo’s dandies call home and it can’t be eased when huge chunks of the family’s budget goes on dashing attire.
National Public Radio points out that “According to the World Bank, 46.5 percent of Congolese live at or below the national poverty line. The country’s per capita gross national income is $3,240, according to the World Health Organization—enough for one pair of crocodile shoes.”
The dedicated men of fashion become obsessive. Here’s Juliette Lyons again: “the Sapeurs sacrifice the chance of moving to a better home, buying a car, or even paying the tuitions to send their children to school.” Some, she says, resort to crime to pay for their style.
One member of the fraternity is quoted as saying “A Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body.”
But, the pressing question is should his children have to go hungry as well?
- From 1965 to 1997, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was under the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. He banned La Sape on the grounds that it was too “Western,” and represented a memory of colonialism.
- In Botswana, there’s a small but passionate bunch of people who are fans of heavy metal and dress up in a sort of black leather “doomsday cowboy” look. They give themselves metalhead names such as Coffinfeeder, Vulture, and Dead Demon Rider.
- “Africa’s Strangest Fashion Trends.” African Explorer Magazine, October 17, 2018.
- “The Art of La Sape: Fashion Tips from Congo’s ‘Sapeurs.’ ” Culture Trip, Victoire Douniama, June 25, 2018.
- “Sussing Out ‘La Sape’: Fashion, Science or Religion?” Noé Michalon, Clique TV, April 7, 2015.
- “La Sape: An Elegance that Brought Peace in the Midst of Congolese Chaos.” Juliette Lyons, Le Journal International, May 12, 2014.
- “The Surprising Sartorial Culture Of Congolese ‘Sapeurs’.” Angela Evancie, NPR, May 7, 2013.
- “The Democratic Republic of Style.” Mike Wendling, BBC News, March 14, 2015.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor