Sapeurs: The Fashion Victims of the Congo

To be cool in Congo is to be a ”sapeur.”

By the Congo River on Sunday afternoons, Africa’s rebels without a cause roar up to the Rapids Cafe, astride their mopeds and dressed in $1,000 suits.

In Congolese slang, ”la sape” (pronounced sap) is La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes, or the society of atmosphere setters and elegant people.

In this country in west-central Africa, these young dandies – also known as ”les Parisiens” – are a cultural affront to people of the older generation, who speak of ”authenticity,” anti-colonialism and Marxism.

For the sapeur, the only ”ism” to follow is narcissism. And his manifesto is the society pages of glossy French-language publications like Africa Elite and Jeune Afrique.

Edited in Paris, these publications breathlessly chronicle what they call ”le Paris black,” or Parisian black society. Paparazzi snap Africa’s beautiful people dining at African restaurants – Le Fouta Toro, Le Sakkara and Le Dogon – or dancing at African nightclubs. These spots, which have existed for decades, have recently become chic with the growth of an affluent African bourgeoisie.

For Congolese who cannot afford this Parisian fantasy world, ”les Parisiens” bring Paris chic back home.

”Yves Saint Laurent suits, Yamamoto jackets, Marcel Lassance suits, Gresson shoes, Cacharel pants,” said one sapeur, Rufin Ngakouba, running down a shopping list of designer clothes he and friends brought from Paris last fall.

Seated on a recent afternoon at the Rapids Cafe, Mr. Ngakouba, 23 years old, was the picture of ”sape” in his gray linen suit with padded shoulders, purple and white striped cotton shirt, mauve socks and a silk handkerchief, black Jean Marc Wesson loafers and a dash of Armani cologne.

”It’s like a chef preparing a dish,” the boulevardier said of his attire. ”People watch and say, ‘mmmm . . .’ ”

During most of the year, Mr. Ngakouba lives in the 18th Arrondissement in Paris, a neighborhood with such a large African population that eight kiosks sell newspapers from the Ivory Coast.

Every year, in late July and early August, Mr. Ngakouba tours the end-of-summer sales in Paris. But in this Central African capital just south of the Equator, summer styles are never out.

”Congolese like their clothes loose,” he said, pointing to his sister Georgette, who arrived at the cafe dressed in a roomy yellow linen blouse from Rome and baggy linen pantaloons from Paris.

Last September, Mr. Ngakouba arrived here with 130 pounds of excess baggage: clothes to sell to fashion-conscious friends.

”People in Brazzaville depend on us for their clothes,” said Eloi Koutaunda, a fellow ”Parisien” who was dressed in black leather pants. Stylish stores in Brazzaville sell Parisian clothing, but the sapeurs offer lower prices and more up-to-date fashions.

By Christmas, Mr. Ngakouba’s trunk was empty. His fashion run paid for a round-trip air ticket from Paris and for several months of life in Brazzaville.

”It’s a plague,” admitted Edmund Capionne, another ”Parisien” dressed in a modishly baggy linen shirt and oversize blue jeans with red suspenders. ”People want to dress so well that they will steal from their parents.”

Indeed, the means of sapeurs -who are largely men – rarely match their dreams. Most, like Mr. Ngakouba, do not have steady jobs but earn money from a variety of sources, like odd jobs or low-level civil-service posts.

With outfits easily costing three times the average monthly salary here of $300, sapeurs resort to renting, or ”mining,” out their clothes to friends for a night. A 24-hour rental for a designer suit is about $25.

At sapeur gathering spots here, one commonly sees at least one young man walking in a studied strut: body tilted back, left hand thrust in a suit pocket and a bored look in the eye. After harvesting the maximum amount of admiring glances, the poseur in the $1,000 suit will sit down with friends and nurse a $1 bottle of beer for the rest of the evening.

Sapeurs also face a locomotion problem. Brazzaville is on the edge of a tropical rain forest, and mud often clogs the streets – a challenge for a man in $200 shoes. In the earlier days of sape at the beginning of the 1980′s, sapeurs occasionally hired pushcart men to ferry them across streets. But Congo’s Socialist Government frowned on this practice, and today most sapeurs get around town on mopeds, after carefully rolling up their trouser cuffs.

As the cataracts of the Congo River rumbled in the distance and the lights of Kinshasa, Zaire, twinkled across the river, Mr. Ngakouba ruminated on the historical roots of the sape.

Elegant dressing, he said, can be traced back to the colonial days, when this city was the capital of what was called French Equatorial Africa.

”When Germany invaded France in World War II, French bourgeoisie who had a lot of money came here,” Mr. Ngakouba said. ”Since they had nothing to do, they changed their clothes every day.”

A different theory comes from Francois Ndebani, a Congolese psychology professor who published a long article on sapeurs in La Semaine Africaine, a Roman Catholic magazine.

”This youth fringe has been identified as a hotbed of delinquency,” he wrote in the article, which was illustrated with a drawing of a Parisian smoking a large marijuana cigarette.

In the late 1970′s, when sapeurs first made their appearance, there was often a drug link. At the time, the Congolese Government sold the Congolese Student House in Paris because it had been overrun with sapeurs selling drugs.

Prof. Ndebani blamed ”this imported model” on French vacationers. He urged the Congolese press to play up what he called ”the misery and the lamentable condition of life in France.”

Faced with such hostility, sapeurs find refuge in their own subculture. They have their own slang: yambala means baggy shirt, bumbatio means pants and nkaka means suit.

”When I say nkaka, my father doesn’t know what I’m talking about,” Mr. Ngakouba said with a chuckle.

Initially, the Government clashed with the sapeurs. More recently, it has adopted a laissez-faire attitude. When traveling overseas, Congo’s President, Denis Sassou Nguesso, routinely changes his army fatigues for an Yves Saint Laurent suit.

Across the Congo River, in Zaire, la sape still irritates the older generation. More than a decade ago, Zaire’s President, Mobutu Sese Seko, banned Zairians from wearing Western suits. In the name of African authenticity, he ordered men to wear a new confection: a Nehru-type jacket with a silk foulard. The jacket, which is stifling in the equatorial heat, is called ”abacost,” short for ”a bas le costume,” or ”down with the suit.”

Today, in the sprawling Cite section of Kinshasha, hip young men defiantly step out for a Saturday night strut in Parisian suits with padded shoulders and skinny thighs.

In a recent album dedicated to la sape, Papa Wemba, one of Zaire’s top singers, crooned: ”Don’t give up the clothes. It’s our religion.”

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