Tag Archives: sapeur

The fine art of looking fabulous.

Editor’s note: This is the twentieth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 20 – April 9

Almost perfect: the facilities at the Guest House Tourist

After nearly a week at the Hotel Cirezi in Goma, I’d forgotten the simple luxury of having a bathroom en suite. I take my time with the morning ablutions, pad around naked, pop in once, twice to check myself in the mirror. The running water, too, seems a bit gratuitous. I fill the bucket in the tub twice – once to shower, once for the toilet – and then again: it never hurts to have a bucket of water on standby in Africa. Each time I turn the faucet, the sound of Congolese tap water clanking through the pipes is like a symphony.

Breakfast at the Guest House Tourist, too, feels opulent. Three slices of fresh white bread – not for this venerable hotel the dry, chalky hot dog buns of a lesser establishment. The omelette, too, is almost worthy of the name: three eggs, hot, scrambled and liberally soaked in butter. So pleased am I by this feast that’s been included in the price of my room that I can almost forgive the lackluster instant coffee: Star brand, product of Uganda, the same bitter brew that was served up in Goma. It’s a credit to my forward-thinkingness as a traveler par excellence that I thought to pocket a few packets of Nescafe on my last visit to the Ihuzi. This is, admittedly, a far cry from Kenyan AA, but it’s enough to get my motor revving at the start of a long day in Bukavu.

Breakfast at the Guest House Tourist

Outside it is a glorious morning: the sun high, the wind carrying a hint of early spring in New York. Today I have my camera with me, refusing to give in to my self-consciousness as a White Guy With a Camera in Africa – one of my most crippling traveler’s neuroses. In three years I have failed to get over the debilitating inability to take pictures on the street. And today, too, my courage doesn’t last. Seeing the wary stares of some husky mama, the flinty-eyed squint of some idle youth, I lose my nerve. I have a criminal air about me each time my camera comes out. In front of a gas station – the word Mobil faded, almost scrubbed from the building; the pumps rusting with disuse; a gang of youths on the sidewalk, selling gasoline in water bottles and jerry cans – I toy with my camera, sigh, leave it in my pocket. I know this feeling well. Today will be full of photographic disappointment.

Walking along the road, the sun bright on the colorful storefronts, I’m joined by a man in a blue dashiki, a flash drive hanging around his neck. His name is Henry, he is a pastor. “You have to be careful with photographs here,” he warns me. (Vindication!) “They will see you and think you are a spy.” More likely they will invent some mythical photographer’s fee, I say, charge another tax. Henry laughs. His English is flawless – he spent six years studying theology in Nairobi. He tells me the name of his church, but I miss it. Even after all these years in Africa, I’m dumbfounded by the preponderance of Christian denominations and sects. I grew up Greek Orthodox in a Roman Catholic neighborhood; in college, I met Protestants, slightly expanding my religious worldview. Henry tells me his church is based in Indiana, in Terre Haute. He is here coordinating the work of church-run health centers in Bukavu, in South Kivu, far to the north in Oriental province. This name rings a bell – the security situation there, I say, is not too good. Henry laughs. “Even last year I was there, I almost lost my life,” he says. They were driving at night, they had come to a bridge, a gunman wouldn’t let them pass. The driver stepped on the gas and drove right through him. “That driver was very brave,” says Henry, laughing.

In the health centers it is hard work; it is the church institutions in Congo that so often fill the needs left by a government in absentia. But there is very little funding: the church in Terre Haute cut its ties with the clinics a few years ago. “They used to support us,” says Henry, “but they have stopped, because of mismanagement.” The previous director was corrupt – now Henry has stepped in to replace him. The church wants to restore its financial assistance, but they are cautious. “They have to be good stewards of God’s money,” he says.

Around us the clamor of street life, commerce, hustling. The city rises and falls over the hills, there are explosions of green, everything tumbles down to the lake. I comment on Bukavu’s beauty and Henry, who has lived here most of his life, sighs. “Because of the demographic situation,” he says, “it has lost some of its beauty.” People have come from the countryside – some fleeing violence, others looking for a better life – and there are the high birth rates, too, of the Congolese. Much of the city looks like a building site. “They are just building everywhere,” says Henry. “There are no regulations here.”

A new building being built

We part – Henry has to mail some documents, he will spend the morning moving from shop to shop, printing, photocopying, mailing – and on I go, along Avenue Lumumba. A man stops me, his name is Iragi Kadusi – he writes it in my notebook – and he is looking for work. He has spent a year in Nairobi, he had to leave when his visa expired, and now he is stuck here in Bukavu. There are no jobs, no opportunities, he says. The Congo has a “dirigent mauvais” – a bad leader. An old woman comes up to us, she has one arm, a beggar. Iragi shoos her away – there is no telling how much charity the white man has, you wouldn’t want him spreading it around to every last beggar on the street. I give Iragi a hard look. It is hard, now, to feel too charitable toward him. He wonders if I might have a job for him in America. Or maybe just something for transport, for “transfert”?

Down the hill, toward the great dirt roundabout described, optimistically, in my guidebook as the “site of future monument.” This was written in 2006. There is no sign of construction, of any forethought toward whatever future totem – Kabila with a dove on his shoulder? – might someday rise here. The future, in Congo, is such an indefinable quantity. Better to play it safe – to leave this dirt-filled lot, crisscrossed by schoolboys and soldiers and weary old women, and wait to see how things pan out ten years down the line.

Site of future monument

To the right, the port road. Across from me, a set of concrete stairs climbing the hill. I have seen these secret stairways around Bukavu, full of mystery and promise. I start to climb, it is a weary slog, the sun is strong, the stairs seem to go on forever. Women huffing along, dresses hugging their thick curves, shoes impractical for such feats of mountaineering. Near the top an old man, a dignified gent in a hat and blazer, wearing the pouty, stricken look of old age. These stairs, under this sun, must be brutal for him. And for me, too. I stop to catch my breath, take in the view. A young man and woman, students, stop beside me. We begin to talk, they are eager, full of curiosity. The university where they are studying is just nearby, they say. Would I like to see it?

It is a pleasant walk. The hilltop is wooded, shaded, a small act of mercy. Here now, says Gilbert, is the Institute Supérieure pour la Développement Rurale – a specialized institute, it attracts students from Goma, from Kinshasa. There are workers everywhere, they are renovating, building a new wing. The classrooms have wooden benches and chalkboards and dusty windows. Students loafing around, a Friday-afternoon lethargy about them. Outside, four copy machines set up on wooden tables in the dirt. A girl, bored, is sitting under an umbrella. Extension cords wind around her bare feet. Gilbert takes me through the halls, shows me the dormitories – crowded little rooms, just enough space for a bed and a desk. A boy sits outside, cleaning his shoes. Curtains in the doorways. Cleaning women in the yard, hanging laundry on the lines. I look into a window – a boy sitting on the edge of his bed, two giant Manchester United posters covering the wall. The place has an air of weary negligence, of university bureaucrats sitting at their ledgers, trying to reconcile impossible sums.

Gilbert wants to take me now back to town – there is a road that winds past his school and the Catholic University of Bukavu and down a beautiful, wooded hill. He wants to show me his home – it is just here, “juste ici,” he says, hoping I won’t refuse. I am, in truth, getting tired of his company, struggling to follow his French. I would like to hop on a moto back to town, have lunch, but the house is just here, he said, waving ambiguously down the hill.

We are back at the roundabout now, the “site of future monument,” and Gilbert has phoned his taxi driver, suggesting the house is not juste ici, after all. The sun is strong now, we are trudging uphill; I’m trying to think of the politest way possible to rid myself of Gilbert. Now a car toots its horn – Gilbert’s taxi, brazenly pulling onto the sidewalk. Gilbert negotiates something with the driver, takes a seat in the front. The windows won’t budge in the backseat, and grumpy indeed is the travel writer staring sullenly out the window. Curse this Congolese boy and his hospitality – curse his home! Realizing, of course, what a bastard I can be.

Bukavu is scrolling by – there is the market, there is the Hotel Tourist. “Juste ici,” it seems, is shorthand for “Kinshasa.” Finally we arrive at the gate of an opulent villa – three stories, whitewashed, crowning a hilltop overlooking the lake. My first thought is: Gilbert can pay for the goddamn cab himself. The gardener opens the gate, there is another gardener, a cook, a cleaning woman. An SUV in the driveway; in the backyard, a satellite dish about the size of a hockey rink. We go into the sitting room and voilà, all the furnishings of middle-class Congolese life: stiff armchairs, chintz curtains, a coffee table with a plastic floral centerpiece. Sconces like you wouldn’t believe. There is a small Sharp TV and a Sharp VHS and a DVD player and a Sony Playstation. The wiring is exposed, it runs up the wall like ivy. An older man sits on the sofa – not his father, says Gilbert, but the family pastor. He is a pleasant, avuncular man in shiny pants and an Adidas soccer jersey. Gilbert offers me a Fanta and disappears from the room. The pastor is across from me and sits there in amiable silence. “C’est une bonne maison,” I observe. “Bonne maison,” he says. “Kabiza.” I soon realize the Swahili-speaking pastor’s French is worse than my own. He sits back in his seat – on the wall above him, a wooden plaque reads: “Christ is the head of this house.” We sit there together, quiet, smiling, making embarrassed eye contact. After ten minutes Gilbert returns with a small basket, inside of which, wrapped in a handkerchief, are two bottles of Fanta. He pours me a citron and shares an orange with the pastor. Then the three of us are sitting together with nothing to say.

I have been in this same room before, it seems – the stiff upright furniture, the doilies, the brass fixtures on the walls. And I have endured these same silences, have battled through language barriers and sat quietly sipping Fantas. It is sweet and frustrating and enduringly strange. I am grateful for this hospitality – it is touching, in its own way. But how long can we go on sitting like this? An hour? Two? Isn’t Gilbert bored of my company yet? We’ve had almost nothing to say for an hour, and yet I know that unless I invent some excuse – “Pole sana. J’ai un rendezvous maintenant.” – we’ll be in this sitting room till dusk.

From the kitchen, now, a commotion, voices. Heads pop into the room – two brothers, a family friend. They arrange themselves around the coffee table, they want to know what I do, why I’m here. Good questions, all. We struggle through the usual explanations – I am a writer, a journalist – and then our momentum slows. My French is full of useful phrases – “What time does this bus leave?”, “Is it safe there?”, “Where is your boyfriend right now?” – but I have no knack for small talk. I tell them I am going to South Africa for the World Cup, and their interest is revived. Who do they support? France, says Gilbert; Spain, says one brother; Italy, another. Giorgio, or Jojo – the youngest, a loudmouth, a little wiseass, I know I would come to despise him – asks if I would like to play football. Not the real thing, of course – we are in rarefied precincts here, we get our entertainment from TV screens. But alas, sighs Gilbert, there is no power. In this palace, all the comforts of the Western world – but outside, it is still Congo.

Gilbert, second from right, with family and friends

We walk through the garden and up toward the front gate, and Jojo, or Giorgio, is snapping at the gardener – a meek, passive youth, he is terrified of this little lord of the manor. Christ, spare me these spoiled rich kids! Outside Gilbert offers to walk me back to the hotel. He stops to greet shopkeepers, classmates, two nuns. Finally we are at the hotel, shaking hands, parting. He says if I ever want to “reposer,” mi casa es su casa, more or less. I thank him – I am, in my own bitchy way, grateful for his company this afternoon.

Again, lunch at the Guest House Tourist. The wood-paneled dining room, the TV blaring music videos, the fat Congolese drinking bottles of Primus. I have not seen any restaurants along the main road, and the other hotels – catering to business travelers, upmarket tourists tracking lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park – are no doubt the sort that quote their prices in dollars. For my 2,300 francs – about two and a half bucks – I am happy to spend my days elbow-deep in riz and petit pois and roti de boeuf.

Accept no substitutes: the Guest House Tourist

After lunch, a food coma sets in. And a general exhaustion, too. It has been three weeks now – I am reminding myself of this each day – and with both time and finances dwindling, end-of-trip fatigue is coming over me. How easy would it be, I think: a speedboat to Goma, a Virunga Express from Gisenyi – I could leave Bukavu in the morning and be in Kigali by the afternoon. A familiar bed and familiar faces. Plus I could finally put the finishing touches on these rambling notes.

Just up the road from the hotel I’d spotted a small snack bar, Rendez-Vous, during my morning walk. It turns out to be just what I’d been hoping for this afternoon – a Western-style coffee shop. The owner, or manager – a young white woman with, I think, a Spanish accent – is pacing the room in a denim skirt and high heels. Two young Congolese girls, slender, pretty, sit sipping Fantas; in the back room an aid worker, an attractive brunette, is sitting on a sofa. There are paintings and batiks on the wall, photos of past clients making merry, a glass counter crowded with croissants, cookies, cakes. It is a cheerful, homely place – like leaving the Congo for the afternoon.

Outside clouds gather, rain begins to fall – a passing shower. Horns are suddenly honking up and down the road: a wedding processional passes, a Hummer and a Mercedes and a string of SUVs. Youths, street vendors, come into the café, selling belts, kitchens knives, outlet adapters. Then a man, elegantly dressed – a flamboyant jacket, the lapels threaded with silver. Surely this is a sapeur, Congo’s famous fashionistas. Where else in the world can you walk through a crowded slum and find men in Ferragamo shoes, Dior shirts, Valentino pants? It is their philosophy, their movement, a way of life: men who have rejected violence, rejected war, who have embraced the sole dictum of looking fabulous. This man’s shoes are like mirrors – he disappears into the backroom, heels clicking. I finish my cappuccino. This place has been a happy find. The menu says, “Call ahead or send an SMS for your order.”

The caffeine has been only a slight pick-me-up. It is after five, I feel listless – I can’t imagine more Primuses with Landry tonight. I kill time online, catching up on the news – I’ve been so detached, disconnected these past few weeks. The baseball season has started, Tiger Woods is 4-under at the Masters – once these things would have mattered to me. An email from the New York Times – my Bujumbura story, finally set to run on May 2. I have a quick look at the edit – the lede, the only part of the story I was proud of, has been eviscerated. I don’t have the strength to read the rest.

The sky is still overcast, the sun won’t be out again until tomorrow. I change into pants, throw on a jacket – this whole musty wardrobe, I can’t wait to cast it off in South Africa. I am no sapeur; I do not feel fabulous. Bundled thusly against the evening chill, I decide to walk with no destination in mind.

The boredom of travel – the part they forget to mention in the guidebooks. Surely I could start a conversation with a stranger, walk into a bar by myself, find some way to pass the hours. But I’m in one of those in-between moods, restless, indecisive. I don’t want to struggle through another low-level conversation in French, I don’t want to be alone. I walk along Patrice Lumumba, another jobless youth to keep me company, monsieur, asking for a job, for money. It is dark now, the streetlights are on. The city is still busy, the market, the shops. I stand outside a bar, partly in the shadows, watching, listening to the music of daily life. How accustomed I am to strange voices, foreign tongues. Passing headlights, the beeping of horns. To save gas, the moto drivers shut their engines at the top of the hill. They coast by in the darkness, the headlights black, they float by like shadows.

Suddenly, up and down the avenue, the power goes out. The shops are dark, the streetlights – I can feel the skin go prickly on the back of my neck. Part of me feels safer, inconspicuous, in the dark – Shakespeare’s Henry V, circling among the troops incognito. But the moment passes; I’m scared shitless. I hail a moto, go bumping back up the hill toward the safety of the Guest House Tourist. Now the sounds of generators thrumming to life; some of the shopkeepers light candles, paraffin lamps. In the hotel dining room, men in suits crowded around a table full of empty bottles. They have come from some wedding, some celebration – all day the cars and trucks crept along the avenue, full of smartly dressed party-goers. There is wrapping paper on the floor, someone has gotten a gift – for what? I greet them, they are neither welcoming nor un-. I feel compelled to try something different for dinner, to have a coffee by the lake. But I think about money, again, always the money. I can’t afford a taxi down the hill; and besides, I need to save a few bucks for another round of drinks with Landry.

Instead I am back on the street, they are building a new hotel, Belvedere, next to the Tourist. There is already a restaurant, open for business. The dining room is vast, like a catering hall, but there are just a few tables scattered across the room. It is like seeing a handful of old couples shuffling across an empty dancefloor. Music pumps in from a wedding party in the next room; a DJ exhorts the crowd in French. The menu is full of dollar signs, it is three times the price of the Tourist. I apologize, I put it bluntly: “C’est très cher.” Probably they will laugh when I leave, already I can hear them repeating after me, “C’est très cher,” not kindly.

Outside more women in party dresses, and men with wide lapels. A well-dressed young man comes down the street with a live goat, he stops at the Belvedere, a girl in high heels comes rushing down the stairs to greet him. The goat bleats – probably he is as confused by all of this as I am. Then they go upstairs, one after the other: the pretty girl, the goat, the smartly dressed boy bringing up the rear.

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Africa is everywhere.

The New York Times reports that the fashion world is slapping its collective foreheads and “embrac[ing] pan-African influences” again. This is welcome news for those of us looking to dust off our dashikis.

Good news for this guy

Like the American work wear and handmade jewelry that have also been popular of late, African-inspired designs offer an antidote to what Max Osterweis, the filmmaker turned fashion designer behind the Suno label, calls “a luxury market filled with brands that lately have become machines for mass-produced, logo-covered status symbols.”

The Times, having reported on the emergence of glossy African fashion mags this October, may or may not be onto something. (They reported on a similar, imminent emergence a year ago.)

But the irony, of course, for those of us living in Africa is that while Western designers are incorporating African patterns and colors into their collections, it’s the Western style icons – the Guccis and Louis Vuittons, often in some watered-down, Chinese-knock-off variation – that are still the status symbols in, well, Africa itself. A visit to any night club in Nairobi, Lagos, or Jo’burg will confirm as much. You get the feeling they’d deck out the sofas in interlocked LV upholstery if they could just find the factory in Shenzhen to make it.

(Taking this fetishization to an illogical extreme, one arrives at Congo’s famous Sapeurs, a sort of African dandy movement chronicled by Daniele Tamagni in his book Gentlemen of Bacongo. A good snapshot of the Sapeur sub-culture can be found here. Some extraordinary images from Mr. Tamagni below:

Philosophically, the Sapeur seems to be a synthesis of Gucci and Gandhi.

A Sapeur, by definition is a non-violent person, despite the 3 civil wars that have taken place since the independence. They stand for an exquisite morality, but as they say “There can only be Sape when there is peace”. They represent an illusion that has been supported by the government itself, trying to normalize a post-war situation. The SAPE interrupted its activities when the civil war started in 1997, and did not reinitiate its activities until 2002. Their motto became “Let’s drop the weapons, let us work and dress elegantly.”

Michela Wrong, whose book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz offers a brilliant portrait of Congo’s unraveling in the waning days of Joseph Mobutu, recalls a memorable encounter with an aspiring young Sapeur – a raggedy street urchin who, when asked of his favorite designers, is quick to insist (I paraphrase here), “Ferragamo for shoes, Gaultier for pants.”)

The African style revival in the West, though, is a happy reversal, I think, of the more dominant trend: the flooding of African markets with second-, third-, and fourth-hand clothes that have more or less wiped out local textile industries. (In Mozambique in the early-’80s, the term roupa Reagan became shorthand for the used clothes that began overtaking the marketplace during that president’s reign.) This has been widely reported on – for example, here, here, here, and here.

The Economist recently suggested that the emergence of the much-hyped East African Community common market could help turn this region into a manufacturing base that might someday rival China. Good luck with that. So long as the infrastructure – physical, institutional – across Africa remains stuck in the Stone Age, and a baroque system of tariffs and subsidies weighs down African economies, you’re not likely to see many “Made in Mali” t-shirts on the racks at Macy’s anytime soon.