It is the little things in life that matter, unfortunately, we hardly pay attention to those little things. To start with, when you dressed up today how much attention did you give to the label on your shirt, did it ever cross your mind to check if the bottom of your jacket is labelled and does it ever cross your mind to check the brand of sunshades you wear? All these don’t matter to you, provided what you wear fits; but not so for some the men in Kinshasa. To them, it just has to be flashy and right! Welcome to the Sapeurs’s world they are “the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People”.
Travel and tourism experts hardly give full attention to local fashonistas, but whether you are a business traveler or a tourist in the Congo—specifically in Kinshasa where I recently visited; you cannot help but notice the sight of men whose sense of style is one of joyous exuberance, flamboyant colours, polished tailoring and impeccable attention to detail. You will see them in suits in periwinkle pink, buttercup yellow and poison green, fat regatta stripes, Jeeves-esque bowler hats, handsome canes, plump bow-ties, polished brogues and jaunty evening scarves, draped just so. They are the Sapeurs who evolved a fully-fledged style, adapting European clothes with vibrant African flair.
The Kinshasa Sapeurs have a place in the city’s history. French colonization of the city brought western influence, an influence that came to define the city’s fashion from the 1920’s jazz age refinement. Joseph Mobutu a former leader of the Zaire, (Now Democratic Republic of Congo) introduced a twist: he attempted to implement a strict non-Western dress code, a policy that met brick walls. Papa Wemba, a rumba musician from Kinshasa, successfully challenged the statusquo—not simply with his song, but visually. He devised the acronym SAPE, roughly translated from French to mean “the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People.” By dressing up his band in the SAPE style, the adoring Congolese crowds literally soon followed suit.
However, Sapeurs is not just about flashy clothes and elegant street lifestyle. Kinois say it is a lifestyle; a way of life that encompasses creativity, swagger and the freedom of expression.
To many in Central Africa and beyond, where Sapeurs have attracted legions of followers, this society represents the model of ideal gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it is expressed in the language he uses, the way he walks and how he treats people. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, not aggressive, he must be against war, and he must be calm tempered. Any wonder why Papa Wemba said, “White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.”
Being a Sapeur in Kinshasa is classy and kinois, especially the youths, love them. There are about 7000 Sapeurs in Kinshasa; some of them are global celebrities appearing at fashion shows, billboards and different adverts.
In Kinshasa, the Sapeurs may well be a key to peaceful co-existence. A member of the society told me that when they get dressed up, go out, and put on a show, they feel good and forget their problems. Another specifically said, “The only thing that you will have from birth to death are clothes, you can be a President or a Diplomat or a celebrity, but if you are naked people will run away from you. I would rather buy clothes than food to eat!”
The main attraction of the Sapeur to me is their ability to use entertainment in conflict resolution. As CNN once noted, Sapeur promotes conflict resolution that “requires buttons instead of bullets, belts instead of bombs.”
The lesson I am taking from my Kinshasa trip, thanks to the Sapeur is: “Honour history, keep conflict resolution peaceful and never tell anyone how much you really paid for your fancy clothes.” LOL!!!
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Usifo Mike-Alvin is a creative writer with knack for budget traveling and adventure. He travels across Africa and reports for www.afrotourism.com