Tonight when I couldn’t sleep, I happened upon a Guinness documentary on Youtube that is worth watching. The video was about the group of men in Congo Brazzaville who are members of a little known club (at least in East Africa) called the Sapeurs or La Sape. These are gentlemen of modest means who live everyday life but who after a hard days work, go home, dress up in impeccable suits, Cravats, Kilts and other stylish western formal dress and then get together for a drink.
(Watch the video here.)
What struck me the most in this amazing documentary, is the commitment with which they take their art – the dignity which they clearly hold on to as they dress up so. It made think about Africanness and what that means to us. The rhetoric that has gained momentum lately here in Africa is that we must shun what is western and embrace what is local – find local solutions to local problems, carry local ideas and eschew foreign ones and so on.
The Sapeurs started out as manifestation of civil disobedience in Zaire when Mobutu Sese Seko proscribed the wearing of western attire – no suits and ties and certainly no Scottish kilts – so that the Africans in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo can show their Africanness and show the world and all its people that they have made a break with their colonial cultures. These gentlemen of the 1970s and 1980s (who keep up their culture to this day) have continued to thrive as a subculture as if to say to the world around them, “we live with joy and style despite of everything.” The concept then spread out through the francophone central African countries – from DRC to Chad.
We did have a time in Africa when we have been ridiculous, no? In Kenya if one is old enough, one will remember a time when we legislated thought – to wit: that it was illegal (and punishable as treason) to think of the death of the president. Take a moment of silence now, for all of those people who died for allegedly thinking and plotting against the deaths of “life-presidents” across the continent, or for decidedly wearing stylish, if a little shopworn, suits in spite of the danger it posed on their lives and limbs.
It is arguable that our moment of ludicrity may not be over.
In Africa today, we still struggle with self-definition and with what African Dignity means. We classify behavior, choices and beliefs in the light of being African or otherwise. We persecute and kill homosexuals because it is unafrican to have such behaviour – the discussion about human rights in this case be damned for being nonsense. We struggle with how we speak and listen to each others accents so that we make judgement about how “real” we are.
And these men – they simply dress up in this remarkable style – remarkable because of the age and the setting of the dressing and they flaunt their Africanness in western dress with impervious dignity and in spite of their unremarkable surrounding. And as they strut their threadbare-but-striking stuff down dusty village streets, they pronounce words that must be forever immortalised in our hearts as Africans: “It is not the cost of the suit that counts, it is the worth of the man inside it.”