Where I’m at: Brazzaville, though maybe headed north for the weekend (fingers crossed) (UPDATE: We did camp up north this weekend! Future posts to come)
What I’m doing: wrapping up another long week, but looking at a long weekend in front of me! (UPDATE: It was a long weekend, but somehow this short week has still been a long one!)
Why I’m posting: Sapeurs! (UPDATE: Sapeurs!)
(UPDATE: The updates are because I started this post a week ago. Somehow all of these long work days, lack of internet access at home, and the new puppy that we just got have made getting a post done nearly impossible.)
Do you know the Sapeurs? If not, prepare to be introduced.
“La Sape” is a phenomenon unique to Brazzaville and Kinshasa (arguments over where it first began are common). Because it has gotten some press, incl. this and this photo journal and this New York Times article from last year, the influence has spread a little bit. The quick, undetailed, and as a result undersold and probably inaccurate story of the sapeurs is that when European (French specifically) couture first arrived in the Congos in the 1920s, the idea of equating oneself with affluence and style really took off. The Congolese are – and many people don’t know this, esp. if they think of the two Congos as poor, uneducated, and destitute – very stylish people. Dress, manner of walk (SAPE = society of ambiancers et personnes elegantes …society of casual walkers and elegant people), hairstyle, way of life…all more appreciated by Congolese people when done with an air of style and sophistication. Thus, western wear was well accepted. But under Mobutu in the DRC, western clothing was prohibited. It was the rumba musician Papa Wemba, still a very influential person here and internationally, that first started to use his fame to rechallenge the power structure’s insistence on “Africanism.” And rather than insisting instead on Westernism, the goal of what became the Sapeurs movement was to promote individualism. Here, at least, it has had great power in helping promote confidence and cultural pride. And despite the fact that some stories have detailed the lives of some sapeurs as those of vagabonds or poor husbands/fathers, many of the sapeurs in reality have found themselves in government positions that would normally be out of reach for the stylish men and women of the Bas-congo.
Thus, to sape is to live a certain way of life. Without a doubt, it was the thing I was most excited to see in action when I came here. I was not disappointed. The sapeurs meet in several locales at different times, but a weekly roundup can be found at a local bar in a poor area of town where each Sunday, the sapeurs class the place up a bit. When “the call to sape” comes over the radio, the catwalk is suddenly graced by well-outfitted men and women who strut in, pose, and spend hours and hours drinking (stylishly), talking amongst themselves (stylishly), and doing something that could hardly be called dancing, but rather is something like a series of small poses. Actually, it really was just that. Take a model at a photo shoot and remove the camera, lighting, and people attending her/him (“Honey, you look fabulous! Work it, work it! The camera loves you!”), and honestly, that person looks a bit crazy with all of those abbreviated movements. Same thing here, but nevertheless, fabulous.
In short, the sapeurs do one thing: celebrate themselves. Maybe that’s why I think it’s so cool. In a country where people are willing to tolerate poor governance, poor standards of living, and just being poor, it’s kind of cool to see some people that say, “Not me. I’m awesome, and I’ll show you.” It’s a bit difficult for people to understand how the sape is anti-colonialism since they all wear Italian and French clothing, but it’s just that: they take those clothes and make the style and the life theirs and are unwilling to accept that they live in a poor country. You can call that “hope” if you’d like, which is maybe why the Minister of the Special Economic Zones and honorary Sapeur President, who attended the event with us (we were showing the Sapeurs to some Wall Street Journal reporters…ha! I scooped your story!), leaned to me and said, “You know who the biggest sapeur of all is? Obama.” Hope? Obama? Sapeur? Who knows…but it was quite an experience!