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Congo: The Sapeurs of Brazzaville

Immaculately turned out in a salmon-pink three-piece suit, bow-tie and sunglasses, Maxim out of place on a catwalk at Paris or London Fashion Week. But he just happens to be strutting his stuff in Ouenzé, a suburb of Brazzaville in 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 43-year-old Sapeur looks a million dollars. Followers of the ‘Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes’ (the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) or ‘Sape’ 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 taxi-drivers and gardeners, but as soon as they clock off they transform themselves into debonair dandies. Sashaying 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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