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Congo: The Sapeuses (women sapeurs) of Brazzaville

Immaculately turned out in a white linen Jean Courcel suit, Chanel bow-tie and Versace sunglasses, Ntsimba Marie Jenne wouldn’t look out of place on the front row of Paris or London Fashion Week. But she just happens to be strutting her stuff in Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo. Despite the sewage-strewn streets, crumbling concrete homes, chickens pecking the dust around his feet and, of course, the intense heat, this 52-year-old Sapeuse looks a million dollars. Male followers of the ‘Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes’ (the Society of Ambiance- Makers and Elegant People) or ‘Sape’ have now been joined by a growing number of female Sapeuses, who like their male counterparts will spend $2000 on a suit when they don’t even have running water, and go without food in order to save up for the right designer accessories. Most have ordinary day jobs as policewomen, tailors and housewives, but as soon as they clock off they transform themselves into debonair dandies. Strutting through the streets they are treated like rock stars –turning heads, bringing ‘joie de vivre’ to their communities and defying their circumstances. Spending money on ornate umbrellas and silk socks might seem surreal when almost half the population of the Congo lives in poverty, but the Sape movement aims to do more than just lift the spirits. Over the decades it has functioned as a form of colonial resistance, social activism and peaceful protest.

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