The story of the Congo’s best-dressed
I listen to a gypsy jazz beat in congratulations to a cult of men who endure Congo heat dressed head to toe in Prada and Gucci. They are not hangovers from colonial days. They are poor and found in nightclubs wearing two thousand dollar rainbow coloured suits. Some own one for every day of the month while others only wear their outfits on special occasions. They all belong to the informal “Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants”; the Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People. Sapeurs take their inspiration from the dress of French colonialists during the twenties and thirties—because vintage is cool.
Wealthy Congolese visiting France were the first to become Sapeurs when they returned to the French Congo—now the Republic of the Congo (RC)— in the clothes they admired. The movement did not enter the minds of most Congolese until the 1970s when the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) pop icon Papa Wemba developed an extravagant style in opposition to government dictated dress codes. Wemba said “The Sapeur cult promoted high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress, to a whole generation of youth across [the DRC].”
According to Sapeur photographer Hêctor Mediavilla, during the late nineties civil war interrupted the movement in the RC while the first and second Congo wars forced the society to cease its activities in the DRC. Leading Sapeur Hassan Salvadore told Sabotage Times that to be a Sapeur is to have “a solid moral ethic” and to cultivate the “moral nobility of the individual”. Now they’re back with blue and green and red pocket squares spilling out of breast pockets, cigars smouldering on their lips. “They’re a sign of better things: stability, tranquility,” said RC government minister Alain Akouala Atipault to Tom Downey of the Wall Street Journal, “They indicate that our nation is returning to normal life after years of civil war.”
The beauty must be striking amongst the poverty and that is where the story unfolds. Many Sapeurs cannot maintain regular jobs. The Los Angeles Times reported that one Sapeur funds his passion by “let[ting] an ex-girlfriend support their 5-year-old son and liv[ing] with his parents… in a dingy, blue-walled bedroom that is more aptly described as a closet with a mattress”. Others resort to more desperate measures and earlier Sapeurs were often involved in the drug trade. To fund his extravagance Papa Wemba himself would charge Congolese to have them smuggled into France disguised as members of his band. He spent three and half months in prison for this in 2003.
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Things are worse in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC which lies next to the Congo river. Opposite Kinshasa on the other side of the river is Brazzaville, the capital of the RC. Downey says “The corruption that plunders the [DRC’s] mineral wealth has even trickled down to its snakeskin suits. Elegance and extravagance just don’t seem able to offer an escape from problems that run so deep.” Things are better in Brazzaville, but on both sides of the river are Sapeurs living for silk and cotton in bullet-holed shacks in dusty slums. Sapeur King Kester Emeneya told the Los Angeles Times that “If [he] had invested [his] money instead, [he] would own several houses.”
It’s easy to be simultaneously in awe and disdain of the Sapeurs’ ideals. At what price should elegance come, and is it worth it? Probably not. Certainly no-one is playing a beat for the vanity of Mount Street. ▲