In Goma, Lights May Flicker but Looks Stay Sharp
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the birthplace of SAPE, a loosely organized cult of dandies known as “les sapeurs.” SAPE is an abbreviation of the group’s name, which in English translates as the Society of Ambience and Elegant People. The contrast between the extravagance of their attire and the hardships of their lives has the effect of highlighting the dignity of their code. Indeed, dressing well is part of the culture there.
“Everybody wears these amazing colorful clothes and are so eager to show who they are,”Ms. Harris said of the people in Goma.
Ms. Harris was in Congo on a fellowship documenting energy poverty.She wanted to capture how people, many of whom don’t have reliable electricity or access to water, maintain pride in their appearance. In Goma, 14 of 18 neighborhoods in the city experience rolling blackouts on a daily basis.
“When I talked to people in Congo, they would say that, despite all the struggles and despite all the misery, pride in the way they dress is something they take really seriously,” she said. “They make sure their whites are super-white and their clothes are super clean.”
Jeonvier Tabana sells high-end men’s clothing at a shop in Goma. “Even though we are having problems in this country, the Congolese are the kind of people who like to look smart,” he said. “It is normal in Congo to find someone who is earning less than $50 a month, but he will still spend all the money for clothes because it’s in our blood.”
Shayla Harris, an independent filmmaker, was a 2017 fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative and is working on a documentary about energy poverty in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.