The other day I was crawling through the series of connected tubes (according to ex-Senator Ted Stevens) that George Bush called “the nets” when I came across an extraordinary group of people, dressed as 1930s French gangsters, in the heart of a poverty-stricken and war-ravaged African jungle.
I thought that was interesting enough, but then I discovered they were part of a recognizable social group in Congo Brazzaville. They are known as the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (SAPE).
Sape is French slang for “dressing with class”. The French often use the expression “il est bien sape” to talk about a sharp dressed man. The term “sapeur” is a new African word that refers to someone that is dressed with great elegance. La sape has emerged directly from a specifically Congolese history. George Aponsah says that
The Sape emerged from the chaos that was the Congo during the reign of Mobutu. It was really one way of coping with a society that had broken down. For a young person growing up at that time, there wasn’t much to grasp hold of to help you feel better about yourself. Politics was out, so you found a lot of cargo cult religions in the Congo. The Sape is essentially one of these. The distinctive look of the sapeurs was also a rebellion against one of Mobutu’s dictatorial decrees, which was that everyone was expected to dress in a very traditional, standard African costume – the abacost.
Hector Mediavilla casts its origin much further back:
The arrival of the French to the Congo, at the beginning of the 20th Century, brought along the myth of Parisian elegance among the Congolese youth working for the colonialists. Many considered the white man to be superior because of their technology, sophistication and elegance. In 1922, G.A. Matsoua was the first–ever Congolese to return from Paris fully clad as an authentic French gentleman, which caused great uproar and much admiration amongst his fellow countrymen. He was the first Grand Sapeur.
A third version has it that
It is the result of the admiration which followed the return of african soldiers who helped France fights the First World War. As they returned clad in european style garnments, they aroused the curiosity and admiration of their fellow countrymen who in turn sought to dress the same way to look good , far from the idea of imitating the colonial master, or seeing him as superior being.
Whatever its background, la sape has taken hold among a certain group. In an album dedicated to la sape, Papa Wemba, one of Zaire’s top singers, sang: ”Don’t give up the clothes. It’s our religion.” A 2006 piece by Edmund Sanders has the following description of the cult-like hold sape can have on its adherents (what George Amponsah calls “the cult of cloth, the cult of elegance”):
He struts down the muddy, trash-strewn alley like a model on a catwalk, relishing the stares and double-takes from passersby. In a country where many survive on 30 cents a day, Papy Mosengo is flashing $1,000 worth of designer clothing on his back, from the Dolce & Gabbana cap and Versace stretch shirt to his spotless white Gucci loafers. “It makes me feel so good to dress this way,” the 30-year-old said when asked about such conspicuous consumption in a city beset by unemployment, crime and homelessness. “It makes me feel special.”
But Mosengo can scarcely afford this passion for fashion. He worked eight months at his part-time job at a money-exchange shop to earn enough for the single outfit, one of 30 he owns, so he’ll never have to wear the same one twice in a month. He doesn’t own a car. He lets an ex-girlfriend support their 5-year-old son and still lives with his parents, sleeping in a dingy, blue-walled bedroom that is more aptly described as a closet with a mattress. Friends, family and his new girlfriend implore Mosengo to stop pouring all his money into clothes and liquidate the closet. “Man, we could buy a house with the money,” said Dirango Mubiala, his clothing dealer, estimating that Mosengo spends $400 a month.
Mosengo won’t budge. “This is just what I am,” he said from behind a pair of oversized white Gucci sunglasses. “I’m a Sape.”
A New York Times report from 1988 noted that:
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.
I can’t possibly do justice to this fascinating culture in a post ike this. Luckily there are resources out there to find out much more, most of which have galleries of images. My first encounter was through the wonderful “The Congolese Sape” essay and gallery by Hector Mediavilla. But see also an article by James Brook in 1988, and the Interview with George Amponsah and Cosima Spender in 2004. Papy Mosengo’s story is from the 2006 article by Edmund Sanders.