Friday, January 20, 2012

The Chap: The Sapeurs

photo by Baudouin Mouanda

The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Chap magazine's April/May 2011 issue on my trip to the Congo to meet The Sapeurs:

...I arrived in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo armed with nothing but a white linen suit and a small French phrasebook. Having spent the autumn traveling in Europe, I'd wisely sent my linen beauty to Abu Dhabi with my mother. When I visited her, I picked it up and handed over the heavy wool, ready for my trip further toward the equator. I disembarked from the plane and was immediately taken aside, along with two non-black South Africans, told we needed someone to pick us up from the airport, and brusquely deprived of our passports. In a room with quite a few of the unsettlingly bored soldiers so common in Africa, a man with a smile like an out-of-tune keyboard slid up to us and gave us the “my friends, this is Africa” line before telling us about his friend outside who could pick us up for $50 each. Bribing someone at an African airport is something a paleface can brag about, but when you've already spent a good chunk of money on Ugandan moonshine and Cuban cigars, the novelty fades fast.
            I had come to Brazzaville to meet the Sapeurs: a group of dandies approaching the seriousness of a cult. Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of Congo, which is not the dreaded Democratic Republic of Congo, although it lies directly across the strikingly fecal Congo River from the DRC's grey concrete capital, Kinshasa. It is an almost sure thing that the more disclaimers stuck on the front of a country the worse off it is and the less likely it is that any of the labels approximate the reality within its borders: the only thing worse than a “Democratic Republic” is a “People's Democratic Republic.” So, as far as countries with prefixes go, I could be worse off. Brazzaville is poor like most Central-African nations, and it went through a civil war several years ago, the evidence of which is still pock-marked on quite a few facades. This is the reason the United States State Department's profile of the country includes the delightful sentence “In March 2003, the government signed a peace accord with the Ninjas, and the country has remained stable and calm since the signing.”
            Like many people, I'd never heard of Brazzaville. The country itself was only brought to my attention by the Sapeurs. They are the members of an unofficial club called “Le SAPE,” which, in French, stands for “The Society for the Advancement of Elegant Persons.” Recently, a photo book called Gentlemen of Bacongo by the Italian photographer Daniele Tamagini was published to great acclaim. The cover is arresting: a black man in a bright pink suit with matching bowler hat and shoes, striding purposefully toward the camera down a dirt street with crumbling one-story buildings lining it, a cigar clamped tight in his theatrically scowling face. The pictures inside were astonishing: here were men in beautifully-fitted suits in the kind of bright colors which can only be pulled off with conviction by people with the blackest complexions. And they were living amongst squalor...

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