Resplendent in two-tone spats, pale-blue pin-striped suit, oversized shades, and a pipe for good measure, Laurence Ndzimi struts down a stretch of pavement with the distinctive rolling gait that is unique to sapeuses and known as diatance. She pauses to strike a pose with the chutzpah of a matinee idol.
She is followed up this makeshift catwalk by four friends, all dressed in equally flamboyant outfits, as photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer Yagazie Emezi flits among them with her camera, catching them in action as a growing crowd of passersby looks on. Wearing a three-piece suit complete with cravat, Messani Grace, president of Mavula Sape, leads the group into the nearby marketplace, prompting a carnival atmosphere among the stallholders and a beaming smile from Emezi.
Emezi has long been drawn to the sapeuses of Brazzaville: “I’ve always been actively looking for niches and communities doing something out of the ordinary. They’re just so striking―representing in their power suits, full of confidence.” While their male counterparts, the sapeurs, have received a lot of media coverage, the sapeuses have remained relatively obscure despite their expressiveness. “There has always been a history of African women being vocal,” says Emezi. “They’ve just been either intentionally silenced―or ignored.”
If sapeuses are vocal, their vernacular is fashion. La Sape is an acronym―La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes―which loosely translates as the “Society of Ambience Makers and Elegant People.”. The origins of La Sape are believed to be rooted in early 20th-century colonialism: Congolese men adopted aristocratic European fashion and style to gain respect from French and Belgian colonizers. Later, Congolese soldiers and others returned home from France after the Second World War sporting the European fashions of the day.
Though La Sape may be rooted in subjugating colonialism, it has evolved into a distinctively Congolese subculture, decoupled from its oppressive origins. Sapeuses and sapeurs vie to outdo each other with their outfits and poses, creating alter egos that subvert the notion that refinement and sartorial elegance depend on economic status.
The women, like the men, dress in flamboyant suits accessorized with hats, pipes, monocles, and other accoutrements gathered from markets and thrift stores or crafted by local tailors. By choosing to dress as they do, sapeuses are effectively challenging traditional gendered approaches to fashion, as well as expressing solidarity and defiance through official sapeuses groups like Mavula Sape.
Because of this―and the fact that they’ve only been around for the last decade or so―sapeuses also face more discrimination than sapeurs. But, according to Emezi, this does not deter them. “The world is changing; women are taking on political roles, activist roles,” she says. “They are aware there are other people out there that will support them.”
And La Sape itself is evolving―La Sape television shows air on Republic of the Congo’s Télé Congo. “On the days these shows air, my family is glued to the TV so that they can see me,” says Messani Grace with a laugh. “The world of La Sape gets you respect in places where you wouldn’t usually get it,” she explains.
Messani Grace’s daughter has also enthusiastically embraced the subculture, though her style is very much her own. “She’s just as passionate about being sapeuse as her mother,” says Emezi. “But her style is very different. She’s wearing jeans, a long denim jacket … it’s evolving and taking on influences from other places thanks to social media.”
Indeed, La Sape isn’t confined to Brazzaville and the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa―diaspora communities have brought La Sape to Europe, with groups active in Brussels, London, and Paris more than a century on from the movement’s naissance in Africa. Messani is particularly excited by the growing global renown La Sape enjoys, and hopes that she and her fellow sapeuses will have opportunities to represent La Sape outside the Republic of the Congo in the future.
Film and music, along with fashion and design, are increasingly influential sectors within the creative industries as African countries continue to exert their growing “soft power” influence over the rest of the world. Women across sub-Saharan Africa are some of the foremost drivers of the continent’s growing cultural cache, harnessing their creativity by establishing their own enterprises and contributing to the formal economy. “I see women setting up enterprises all the time,” says Emezi. “Actually, it’s always been happening, but now that we find ourselves in a better space―a better world for women in many ways―every day I hear about one endeavor or another being spearheaded.”
In fact, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs in the world. But because they are disproportionately engaged in the informal sector and typically running small-scale businesses, women have faced a range of challenges, from financial instability to a lack of agency resulting from social, cultural, and institutional discrimination. But, as Emezi says, the world is changing. African women are increasingly growing their businesses and transitioning them to the formal economy with the help of a range of public and private partners.
One such partner is logistics company DHL, which launched its GoTrade program in 2020 to support the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in low- and middle-income countries and facilitate cross-border trade. GoTrade is active in 24 countries worldwide, including many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2021, the initiative has supported nearly a thousand SMEs in the region, 48% of which are led by women, providing access to the skills and knowledge needed to successfully trade with regional and international markets, covering areas like customs requirements and other paperwork, packaging, and market data.
“Every single statistic that you look at in the world reaffirms that a more connected society in terms of inclusion of women in the economy makes for a more robust economic performance,” says Venessa Dewing, DHL Head of Core Sales in sub-Saharan Africa. “So whether it’s for social reasons or for economic reasons, we absolutely are convinced that women have to and should play a bigger role in society and in the economy across sub-Saharan Africa.”
In addition to working alongside initiatives such as the UN’s SheTrades program, which provides specialist business training, tools, and financial resources for women-owned businesses, DHL also provides streamlined international shipping services so that these business owners can quickly and easily send products to customers abroad.
“These shipping services support women entrepreneurs to overcome one of the biggest perceived obstacles to selling their products online―and to a broader audience. The ability to do so well is, therefore, an enabler of business growth,” says Dewing.
Haddy Dibba is an entrepreneur from The Gambia who has been able to grow her fashion and homewares business with the help of SheTrades and DHL. “I started as a homegrown business six years ago, and it’s grown so that I opened a shop last year,” she explains from her workshop in the capital city, Banjul. Through the shop and her social media sites, she’s been able to develop a customer base outside the country. “DHL … came at a time when we were struggling to send our products abroad to customers, as normal post could take months.”
Today Dibba works with a cooperative of tailors, and regularly sends products to clients in Europe and the U.S. using DHL. “Gambia is known as the smiling coast of Africa … as a country Gambia has inspired my work. And through my creations, I just want to show Africa to the world.”
Emezi also relies on DHL to share stories with her media clients. “For National Geographic assignments, I have to send hard drives with three to six thousand images on them for the review process,” she says. “And there’s just nothing more reliable.”
Emezi’s approach to visual storytelling is the opposite of objectification―her priority is to connect with people and communities in such a way that they can choose if and how they are represented. “My first mission and duty are to the people I’m representing―to the people that have given me access,” she says. Second is covering the story.”
“Gone are the days of this voyeuristic approach to photography―I look at my work as a collaboration,” says Emezi. “If photojournalism is about truth telling, there’s value in every individual story and the ability of people to share their own truths.”
Find out more about Moving Stories in a Changing World.