Lingala and the ‘La Sapes’: DRC culture icons

Tuesday March 08 2022
DR Congo fashion.

A female "Sapeur" Mamitcho Kadithoza (in blue) of the group "Leopards of the Congo" with her mentor Kadithoza in Kinshasa on September 10, 2014. These fashionistas also influence Conglese musicians and dancers. PHOTO | AFP


Recent remarks by Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto suggesting that there is nothing to DR Congo beyond music and the ‘’funny’’ dressing by musicians caused a furore on social media, exposing the diplomatic gaffe made in the heat of local electioneering.

He said that the ‘’DRC, a region of 90 million people, does not have a single cow,’’ and that Kenyans should exploit the opportunity offered by regional trade agreements to sell milk to Congolese. He said this while poking fun at the fashion style of Congolese musicians, who wear high-waist trousers.

These comments set off a diplomatic kerfuffle and a social media firestorm, with #COT or Congolese On Twitter supporting fiery Congolese ambassador Francine Muyumba Nkanga who condemned Ruto’s snide and demanded an apology. After sustained online reprimand of Kenya #COT threatened to boycott Kenyan bank Equity in Kinshasa and national carrier KQ, the most visible Kenyans brands in DR Congo.


These Sapes celebrate the 18th death anniversary of Stervos Niarcos, in Kinshasa. Niarcos is regarded as founder of the La Sape and "Kitendi" religion. PHOTO | AFP

Kenya’s ambassador to the DR Congo Dr. George Masafu issued a statement reiterating the great respect and regard that Kenya has for the DR Congo, and later DP Ruto’s press secretary issued a statement too.

But forget the cows for a minute. DP Ruto’s remarks touched at the very soul of the Congolese cultural pride: Music and fashion. While the DR Congo’s top exports may be tangible minerals – gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, tin, tungsten and zinc, estimated at over $10 billion – its top cultural exports are its music and musicians.


In Africa continent and in the Afro-Caribbean nightclubs of Paris, Brussels and London, fans shun local Afro-bands for Congolese Rhumba sang mostly in catchy Lingala tunes, shimmying out of DR Congo capital Kinshasa.

From the time of Franco to Tabu Ley, M’bilia Bel, Papa Wemba, Mpongo Love, Kanda Bongoman, Pepe Kalle and the perennial Koffi Olomide and his protégé Fally Ipupa of the Latin Quartier brigade, Congolese music has been a major cultural export more than any Kenyan milk would ever be.

And these music icons were also dancers and fashionistas in their own right, akin to the renowned flamboyant fashionistas, La Sapeuers. The La Sapes, an abbreviation of Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance, originated in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1960s led by Stervos Niarcos Ngashie, who also found the ''Kitendi'' (clothing in Lingala) religion but crossed the river and took an underground stronghold in then Zaire (current DRC) as a sartorial symbol of rebellion against then strongman, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Two Sapeurs.

Two Sapeurs at the Gombe cemetery in Kinshasa in 2014 to honour founder Stervos Niarcos Ngashie, who invented this flamboyance. PHOTO | AFP

If the La Sapes of the Mobutu years were rebels without a choice-of-clothes, then the current generation are certified and self-satisfied ‘’fashion victims’’ with global taste in designer labels.

It is therefore hilarious for anyone in Kenya, a country without a national dress, to ridicule even in jest, the dressing of any Congolose, La Sape or not, and especially not the globally acclaimed musicians. The Congolese are as proud of their music as their fashionistas are of their sense of style. Both are highly acclaimed in Congo and abroad.

It is the La Sapes who decide which dance moves and how they form are born, and exported across Africa and the diaspora living on the fringes of European cities, before they are swept away by the next cultural creation off a Congolese dance floor.

And these fashion and dance creators were never far from politics either. At the turn of the millennium for example, the ndombolo dance was all bending the knees and elbows, legs wide apart and bottom in the air, like aerial exclamation marks, pointedly poking fun at the walking style of then president Laurent Kabila. It was a social cultural payback for disappointing the Congolese people after chasing out Mobutu but not doing much to improve the economy.

DP Ruto may not know it, just like many people in the region, that the significance of the high-waist trousers worn by Congolese musician is to show off the $200-a-pair Paul Smith shoes, beloved by musicians and fashionistas.

As for cows in the DR Congo, for those who didn’t know, there are 1,267,642, or one cow for every 70 Congolese.