The Democratic Republic of Style

The Democratic Republic of Style

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Of the Brazzaville Sapeurs, Six is scathing: “They are about cheap clothes,” he says. “We are expensive. They are like secretaries – we are the bosses.”

Kinshasa's Sapeurs are younger, their style more cutting edge, with influences from high fashion to hip-hop. Once Six is dressed to the nines we travel to a nearby square – his mates show up dressed in tuxedos with fluorescent patterned jackets, fur coats, and costumes that would not look out of place on a guard at the Tower of London.

They strut and bounce, dance and flounce. Everyone stops to stare, and when they are ready to have serious fun they lead an impromptu parade through the streets of Matonge.

Rush-hour traffic comes to a halt. People come out of their houses and jump up from their chairs at roadside cafes. Football games are abandoned. Kids start to whistle and shout. Within minutes we are in the middle of a crowd of hundreds. Young men sing: “We love the Sapeurs.” It is chaos – unbridled pride and joy.

Now of course, I should point out that this is a country where civil war still rages a thousand miles to the east – where the democratic transition is quite arguably neither democratic nor a transition. Six weeks ago anger at President Kabila turned in to riots in which nearly 50 people were killed. The Sapeurs weren't strutting then – nobody was.

There are terrible problems here with HIV, illegal mining, and of course all that stuff that kills poor people just because they're poor: malaria, stomach bugs, car accidents, childbirth.

That's reality of course. But so is this. Night has fallen in Kinshasa. At club Why Not, Six and his friends have arrived. The bass from this club, and from dozens of clubs all around, is thumping away like heavy rain. We go in and immediately the DJ is shouting to the Sapeurs. Somebody buys a bottle of whisky. And the Sapeurs and the Congolese who love them are in the mood. They're set to dance all night.

Photos by Manuel Toledo

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