What it means to be a sapper in the Republic of the Congo
Being a sapper means more than dressing well, it’s an identity.
Dancing in front of the sidewalk bar, drinking slippery beer bottles of condensation, each of us is drenched in sweat. The humidity close to night in Brazzaville has our hair stuck to our faces, our skin shiny. But that does not stop the sappers to look seriously dapper in their pointy, canary yellow or scarlet suits, fedora hats, sleek, polished ties and shoes. (I just look like a clearly dressed mess with frizzy hair, but frankly, I’m having too much fun to care.)
You may recognize the sappers, sometimes called the dandies of the Congo, Guinness 2014 Advertising that launched them into an international orbit – but the subculture has been around for over 100 years.
By the 1920s, many in Brazzaville – the capital of what is now the Republic of Congo, then a French colony – had gained an appreciation for Parisian fashion, perhaps made more prevalent by soldiers returning from Europe. after World War I. that these are the origins of The Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People (Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People) –the undermining to shorten it.
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Across the Congo Chocolate River, Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has also seen the emergence of the undermining during the 20th century. In the 1970s, the subculture took an edge of resistance when the President of the DRC, Mobutu Sese Seko, banned the wearing of Western clothing in an attempt to distance itself from Belgian colonialism.
“It’s an identity, a culture. There are different ways of expressing one’s identity – as an artist, as a painter. We are getting dressed; this is how we express our identity. “
“Of course, we are the originals. If not us, then who else? says Bertrand Zonlelet, president of the Association la Dynamique des Sapeurs Cour des Grands, a group of sappers from the north of Brazzaville. (Our conversation is translated by my guide Brazza, Destin Net-Simbou (Net), who works for Congo Conservation Company.)
“It’s an identity, a culture,” explains Bertrand. “There are different ways of expressing one’s identity – as an artist, as a painter. We are getting dressed; this is how we express our identity. “
His group meets twice a month, with festivals bringing together all the sappers; they are now working with the Congolese government to establish an official day to celebrate the undermining.
Anyone can become a sapper, says Bertrand, who is an electrician by day. You join a group and then learn to dress (textures are important), mix colors (no more than three in one outfit), and walk – because being a sapper isn’t just about putting an outfit together, but also modeling it. .
In the early evening, four traveling companions and I join Bertrand’s group and sit in a large circle on plastic chairs outside the bar, the music already beating. Each sapper goes to the center to show off their finery, often with the distinct dance of the sappers. A woman in a red suit pulls out her jacket to reveal her lime green shirt and belt, pulling the end of her matching scarf. The sappers applaud and encourage each other. Rodivin, 10, struts down the street in his navy blue suit, posing as a model at the end of a catwalk for the camera. His mother and father are both sappers – he says he wants to travel the world to share their culture.
Passers-by gather on the sidewalk to watch. The sappers are known to frequent certain bars in Brazzaville and, says Net, they always bring the party.
A gentleman takes off his jacket and unbuttoned his waistcoat, before taking the end of his tie between his teeth and striking a pose. Some sappers swing carved wooden canes, others hold ornate pipes at the corner of their mouths. A sapper begins with her arms in the air and one leg extended at a right angle, in something like a tai chi pose, before whipping her hat and placing one foot in front of the other, showing off her tartan pants.
A sapper can own up to 100 designer costumes, some from France or Italy, with shoes from England, maybe even a kilt from Scotland.
Women have become more involved in recent years. “Equality began in sapology,” says Bertrand.
“If a man is able to tie a tie and women can do the same, we must be equal,” says Sapper Grace Messani.
Grace – who wears a pale blue suit with a white handkerchief in her pocket – is an award-winning sapper. What does it take to become a champion?
“[It’s] how to mix your colors, the way you walk, the way you show your clothes and even the way you answer questions, ”explains Bertrand.
Of course, being a sapper can also be expensive. A sapper can own up to 100 designer costumes, some from France or Italy, with shoes from England, maybe even a kilt from Scotland. Sometimes they get freebies, but mostly they fund their own wardrobe.
But, says Bertrand, for him and others like him, the expense is well worth it: “It is an honor to perpetuate this culture.” Clearly, it’s not just about clothes, it’s about making a statement – on the economy, gender equality, politics and community. They have a powerful presence that can light up a street.
We exchange hugs, kisses, and handshakes, then pile into a cab and the sappers wave us out on a night that already feels a little duller without them.