Democratic Republic of Congo: The “Sapeuses”, a Female Minority in a Man’s World
Mama Africa est une des rares sapeuses de la nouvelle génération et la plus connue de Kinshasa. Malgré ses moyens modestes, et le qu'en-dira-t-on, la sape est la passion de cette mère de six enfants.
Mama Africa is one of the most uncommon and most well-known "sapeuses" of her generation. Despite her modest means, and what others might have to say, "sape" remains a passion for this mother of six. "I have been a 'sapeuse' since the day I was born", says this smiling woman of 32 years whose real name is Maguy Ndumza.
This article was originally translated from French. Click here to read more from Slate Afrique.
Sitting outside on her small house's narrow terrace, steeped in humidity, Maguy appears unoccupied by her modest standards of living. "What matters to me for the moment is clothing! The rest will come later," she says. Today she is wearing a skirt and a khaki vest (designed by Kenzo) that are worth approximately 2000 dollars. She spends a portion of her salary on these clothes, but also doesn't mind borrowing money to acquire them.
African style dandyism, the "sape" (Société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes) is a popular fashion movement that started in Congo-Brazzaville, a former French colony, after World War II. At the time, ex-army combatants developed a taste for French fashion and brought many of these trends from the métropole back to the colonies. In the 1960s and after decolonization, the movement began to gather storm on both sides of the Congo River. In the DRC, 'sape' was embodied my musical celebrities who added elements of extravagancy to the trend.
Sapeurs love to parade around in eccentric and luxurious clothing. They mix their garments very liberally all with the aim of concocting an original style. Some of the most popular items among sapeurs are the three piece suit, the Scottish kilt, and gauzy Japanese-styled pants. However, this taste for expensive clothing often elicits a few raised eyebrows in the DRC, where according to the UN, 90% of the population lives in absolute misery.
If they prefer the newest apparel, many poorer sapeurs lean on the diaspora to help them procure their favorite brands. If not they buy their clothes, by the sweat of their brow, in some of many of Kinshasa's thrift stores.
Women are no exception to this rule; they even have to deal with added prejudice. Some of them wear suits, while others smoke pipes and walk with canes — a style which causes many to brand them as "lesbians".
"Men tell me that I should wear dresses or skirts, and that 'sape' doesn't suit me. They say that men will not find me attractive and that no one will marry me", explains Mama Africa.
"But I don't care whether or not men are bothered by me!" she retorts.
The sapeuses have also caused attitudes to change. "When I started 'saping' I already liked to dress up like a boy", explains 30-year-old businesswoman Mamie Masau Katumba". My family were reticent to embrace my new look at first but now it does not seem to bother them", remembers this mother of two.
Famous Congolese singer Papa Wemba, nicknamed the 'King of Sape', says that this debate should not even be taking place. "They prefer a more masculine look (…) I am not bothered by that! They are defending themselves; they are showing that they are also here, that they also exist!"
Even if sape is traditionally more of a masculine domain, where most women are relegated to the ranks of 'sexy' sidekicks within the movement, others have successfully managed leave their mark on the trend.
But they have long since hung up their expensive clothes. They have become "mothers that speak only of their memories", remarks Papa Wemba, remembering shy Clementine who became a sapeuse in her teenage years to impress her "white friends", but today at the age of 65 nostalgically remembers her favorite "black skirt".
A new generation of sapeuses has begun to emerge thanks to Bwapwa Kumeso known also as "Go la Sape" who created the brand Kadhitoza in 2009 and who also trains six future sapeuses. Amongst them is Mamie Musaw Katumba, dubbed Mamitcho Kadhitoza — one of the up and coming figures in sape.
"For me, a woman in sape is a normal thing", justifies Go La Sape. Why are there so little of them? "They find it shameful to walk out in the street like that; they don't want to make a scene…"
Local school-supply saleswoman, Anne Mushima, supports the new feminine movement. "It's good for equality! We don't always want to be second to men!" she claims, in front of her stand at Liberty Market.
This article was translated by Matthew LaLime, Staff Intern with the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.
Photo courtesy of Musée de l'histoire de l'immigration via Flickr Commons
The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more