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Sapeurs: The gentlemen from the slum

June 3, 2021

reading time: 8 minutes

by Bettina Rühl, guest author

Sapeurs

Dressed in stylish suits, four young men have made the Kenyan slum Kibera their stage. The fact that they are continuing the tradition of the “Sapeurs” of Central Africa was at first unknown to them.

As Moses Osore turns the corner, a number of women pause their work and look up from the heads of the clients whose hair they are braiding. Osore is wearing a long, dark blue coat over delicately striped grey and white dress pants and a matching shirt. Grey socks, black leather shoes, a leather briefcase, a blue scarf and his dreadlocks complete the look. The women are wearing tank tops, skirts and flip-flops. Osore, who is 22, would likely also attract attention in downtown Nairobi, but not as much as here in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the Kenyan capital. 

The square where the women have set up their ad hoc hair salon at a low wooden table is paved with red clay, and is muddy following the heavy rains that have fallen over the last few days. Simple stands made of corrugated iron or wood are scattered around the square, from which tomatoes, onions and Maggi bouillon cubes, chapatis and hard boiled eggs are being sold. For a few shillings, you can charge your mobile phone, because many people here do not have electricity at home.

“The others will be here soon,” says Osore and chats a bit with the hairdressers, who are his neighbors: he lives in the row of shacks just behind the square. Although Osore is a familiar face here, he always attracts attention. As do his three friends who then turn up: Sylvester Ochieng in a suit jacket, hat and tie. Dennis Juma wearing a cap and suit jacket. Allan Omondi, who has paired a colorful shirt with a bold pattern, two different-colored socks and sneakers with his jacket. Together, the four are “Vintage Empire”, a group they formed just over five months ago.

Osore leads the way to his shack, where he will explain what their vintage style is all about. The narrow and sloping path is full of garbage, around which streams of waste water snake. Keeping polished shoes clean, even after just a few minutes, requires some skill, which is something the four friends have – every step is a confident one. “We grew up here, after all,” says Osore. He only wears rubber shoes during the particularly heavy rainy season. “But they don’t look like rubber.”

Sapeurs: Extravagant and flamboyant

Osore pushes the door to his little corrugated tin shack open and invites his guests in. Inside, the bed leaves just enough room for a metal chest containing Osore’s clothes and two chairs. One of these serves as a shelf for some books, a bottle containing disinfectant, a glass and a toothbrush. There is also a tiny storage room, where well-worn books are piled up on a shelf, as are a few aluminum pots and plates, and quite a number of pairs of shoes. The music being played by several neighbors penetrates through the thin walls.

A few months ago, they had sat down and, as usual, discussed everything imaginable, says Osore, whom his friends call “Maestro” because he is the playmaker during their soccer games. “We noticed that most people from our generation are constantly trying to keep up with the latest fashions.” So they came up with the idea of doing the opposite, “in other words, dressing in a way that others think is old-fashioned”: in suits and ties, hats and leather shoes. “We want to attract attention and be unique.” Osore opens the blue metal chest and spreads out his vintage treasures: pinstriped shirts, pleated trousers and suit pants, a sweater vest. He stores his soccer clothes separately, in a big bag.

It was only after they had found their style that they learned they were following in the footsteps of the “Sapeurs” in the two Congos, who also take great interest in the way they dress. These central African dandies embrace elegance and individuality, and enjoy putting on a big show in public. They invest a significant amount of time and money in a wardrobe that far exceeds their financial means: their style is borrowed from the upper social classes, but is at the same time markedly extravagant and flamboyant.

What are sapeurs?

Sapeurs are people in Africa who dress in a way that is conspicuously stylish and whose sophisticated appearance does not actually correspond to their financial situation. The movement dates back to the early years of colonialism. The term is derived from “sape”, the French word for “clothes”. It was later declared a backronym for “Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes”, or in English: “Society of Ambiance-makers and Elegant People”. The French believed it was their “mission” to ”civilize” the African population. As they saw it, this included wearing second-hand European clothing that the colonial masters had brought from oversees. Today the “Sapeurs” and “Sapeuses” in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo use fancy and extravagant European clothing as an expression of a mixture of self-irony and self-confidence, and as a sociopolitical statement.  

The flamboyant aspect is secondary for the four Kenyans, although they do want to be original and stand out. Each of the four friends has his own reasons for being fascinated by having fun with “old-fashioned” clothes. For Osore, it is above all the joy of being different. He also loves the performance aspect that comes with this – as do his friends. The alleyways of Kibera are their stage, the sunbeams their spotlights. The neighbors love to watch them, are entertained by the unusual ideas of “Vintage Empire”. Nobody takes offence, nobody makes fun of them. “If someone in Kibera has a good idea and is original, they get applause,” says Osore.

That is why it’s not important to wear particularly expensive clothes – none of the four friends can afford them anyway. Especially not now, during the corona pandemic. The measures to mitigate the spread of the virus have, like in many countries, triggered an economic crisis in Kenya. The inhabitants of informal settlements such as Kibera have been particularly hard hit. Most of them have neither permanent jobs nor social security, they earn their money as day laborers or in the informal sector. Many of them, including “Vintage Empire”, have lost their livelihoods as a result. 

Before the corona crisis, Osore made a living on what foreign tourists paid for a tour of Kibera. He has learned to be thrifty. Money has always been a sensitive topic for him: Osore’s mother supported him and his eight siblings by doing odd jobs. She earned enough to survive and to send her children to school, but not to pay for higher education. Osore had to quit college, he would have liked to become a web designer.

The style of the sapeurs: Elegant, but cheap

Osore invests more time than money in his vintage wardrobe. Before the outbreak of the corona crisis, the four friends met once a week to visit one of Nairobi’s many used clothing markets, known as mitumba markets. Mitumba is the Swahili word for bundles, and the markets were named as such because the used clothing from Europe is delivered in bundles. 

They would spend hours rummaging around for clothes that matched their style. “I was always the last to leave the market,” says Osore, laughing because he dedicates so much time and gives so much thought to his clothes. He would spend around five US dollars during these trips, a total of 20 dollars a month – more than most other slum dwellers, he believes.

But the group is not interested in using their clothes to feign prosperity or to arouse envy. “Most people here know that we shop as cheaply as possible,” says Osore. The topic of the price of their clothes does sometimes come up, however. “Every now and then, someone approaches us and says, for example: this coat must have been very expensive, what did it cost – 20 dollars?” But the four friends never spend that much money on an item of clothing, and the coat only cost five dollars, a bargain.

Clothing as a political statement

Then it is on to Dennis Juma’s shack. Laundry hangs everywhere in the narrow alleyways, even in front of his entrance. He bends down to slip under it. Three beds take up almost all the space in the shack, Juma lives with two of his seven siblings. 

Behind the door is the trolley he uses to make a living: the 23-year-old is a street vendor, and sells hot sausages and hard-boiled eggs as snacks. On a good day, he earns two US dollars, but since the beginning of the corona crisis, times have been tough for him too. He would have liked to become a lawyer, had also started his studies, but had to drop out. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, when you come home to Kibera in the evening, there are a lot of problems waiting for you,” he says. “Your siblings look at you, they want money, food – the family needs your help.” 

Since then, he has been dreaming of finding a way of making money that does not involve selling hard-boiled eggs. Something to do with art, for example. The fact that he can at least live out some of his creativity through his clothing is a small consolation to him.

Juma also stores his clothes in metal chests. He opens the first one and takes out one pair of pants after the other. For him, the vintage style is also a political and social statement, a reminder of the times of Nelson Mandela and other African freedom fighters. “They looked reality in the eye and tried to really solve problems.” Back then, corruption had not reached its current level. “Today, politics is more about appearances, not about really improving conditions.” Juma is happy when people ask him about his eye-catching clothes because that gives him an opportunity to discuss politics and the situation in Kenya.

The afternoon sun is now low on the horizon, the colors are glowing in Kibera, and before night falls, “Vintage Empire” sets off for a last performance on their outdoor stage.

Images: Brian Otieno

This article was first published in LGT's client journal CREDO.

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