Flamboyant dandies parade past the tomb of one of his icons in DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, flaunting prestigious designer labels in stark contrast to the abject poverty around them.
Dozens of extravagantly dressed dandies, known locally as sappers, turned up on Friday to commemorate the death of Stervos Niarchos, a pop star and one of Congo’s legendary dandies.
Niarcos, who died in 1995, epitomizes the fanatical pursuit of elegance for many in the desperately poor Central African country.
His 1989 hit, “La Religion y Kitendi”, extolled dressing up as one of life’s highest goals.
On the anniversary of Niarcos’ death, sappers strutted up and down the sidewalk of Boulevard du 30 Juin, Kinshasa’s main thoroughfare, before gathering around his grave in an adjacent cemetery.
A snake charmer named Ibrahim wore an ankle-length plaid skirt with a jacket and a tall white hat.
A 52-year-old dandy who gave his name as maitre contrebase showed off blue dungarees by Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto.
“It’s too expensive,” said the school’s math teacher.
Devotees of the subculture – called “la sape” – often spend huge sums of money on prestigious fashion brands.
The DRC is one of the world’s poorest countries according to the World Bank, with two-thirds of its population of about 100 million people living on less than $2.15 a day.
Some snake charmers wear clothes of their own design and highlight the mystical importance of being well dressed.
Kadhi Kadhitoza, who was happy to challenge the audience on his knowledge of luxury brands, wore his own made burlap suits decorated with cowry-shell buttons.
He called Niarchos “our Pope”, and said that God himself had prepared skin garments for Adam and Eve after they sinned in the Garden of Eden.
“Everyone has their own way of praying,” said 53-year-old Kaditoja.
– ‘God of La Sep’ –
Dandies later gathered at Niarchos’ tomb, one by one, to pay their respects, some reciting the names of the brands they wore.
“It’s Donatelli,” said a sapper standing inside the small tomb, displaying his white-and-gold T-shirt.
She then pointed to her Givenchy shoes from Paris-based fashion house Comme des Garçons and her skirt, then put the Kenzo label on top of her hat.
Another Sapeur was leading a group in prayer.
“Oh God, La Sepe,” she cried. “You were the first stylist, the first designer, who did not want to see the nakedness of man after the sin of Adam”.
‘SEP’ stands for Société des Ambiencers et des Personnes Elegantes, which roughly translates from French as Society of Ambience Makers and Elegant People.
Central Africa’s dandy tradition, which originated in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, traces its origins to the colonial era when local people encountered European fashions.
It is a means of escapism for many and joyous and carefree amidst poverty, corruption and conflict.
– ‘show of force’ –
Andre Yoka Lai, a director of the National Institute of Arts in Kinshasa, said that the saper phenomenon became more pronounced during the post-World War II economic boom in colonial Belgian Congo.
The followers of the movement were then dedicated to imitating the European style and living happily ever after.
But his motivation changed when Congo plunged into economic crisis after independence in 1960, Yoka said.
“La sape is a kind of display of power beyond one’s means,” he explained.
But Yoka said he thought many modern sappers were frivolous individuals, especially given that there is ongoing conflict in the east of the DRC.
The M23 rebel group, allegedly backed by Rwanda, has seized territory in eastern Congo since late 2021 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
“We are at war,” said Yoka. “We should not dress like circus clowns”.
There were still signs of conflict during the Supper Parade on Friday.
A dandy wore glasses dripping with pearls, which he said represented the tears of people in the East.
Banka Kadi Kaditoja, dressed in a burlap suit, said the snake charmer tradition is an indelible part of Congolese culture.
“It’s for the Congo, for us,” he said.
bar-aml / ach