In Goma, Lights May Flicker but Looks Stay Sharp

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.”

She spent time in churches, in beauty salons and in clubs. She met singers, barbers, shop owners, pastors and more. Here are some of their stories.

“These two necklaces mean a lot to me,” said Olivier Bayongwa, a musician known as El’Weezya Fantastikoh. “The first one shows a pharaoh and the Egyptian pyramids. The second one is Versace and is a gift from my girlfriend.” His dreadlocks hair style is not as common in Goma as in the United States. “Women tend to get a lot of braids and weaves, and the men are into the faded cuts,” Ms. Harris said, “so it was really cool to see somebody who had this kind of hairstyle.”

Theobold Kawa CreditShayla Harris for The New York Times

Outside the AEPL Makedonia church in Goma, Theobold Kawa, a pastor, wore a crisp white suit with gold detail that he bought in Uganda. “A servant of God shouldn’t look dirty,” he said.

Benjamin Chifunga Karana with three cellphones at his desk.

Ms. Harris was struck by the fact that Benjamin Chifunga Karana, another pastor at the AEPL Makedonia church, had three phones. “The phones are probably all in three different stages of operation and charging because the electricity kept going in and out as we were talking,” she said.

Churchgoers during a service. CreditShayla Harris for The New York Times

Ms. Harris had been told that church services in Congo were not to be missed, and she was not disappointed. “The people totally turned out in their Sunday finest, and the music was super on point,” she said. Here, the women dressed for services in traditional wax fabric garments, the man in an electric blue suit.

Lakista Chance, an artist and a singer.

Lakista Chance, an artist and singer, said her style is derived from a mix of elements from outside the country. “As an artist, one must create something that people are going to remember,” she said. Ms. Harris saw her perform a mix of French songs she had written and a cover of a Miriam Makeba song at the Ibiza Club in Goma. “I was intrigued by her look because it was really modern and unique,” Ms. Harris said.

At the Coiff’Emoi barbershop, below, close-cropped hair is the popular look for men. “Their specialty is shaving facial hair, going to town on people’s beards, mustaches and sideburns, the line and the fades,” Ms. Harris said. “So guys really come in to get their lines touched up on the regular.”

Lewis Shalukoma, standing, cutting hair at Coiff’Emoi, a barbershop in Goma.

“A lot of the people in these barbershops come up with their own sort of hack where they have generators, batteries and backup systems to keep things going,” Ms. Harris said. Here, Lewis Shalukoma cuts a young man’s hair.

Sadiki Ndume Fally, a barber at Coiff’Emoi, was dressed impeccably in a mix of black-and-white patterns, with an Hermès belt and a chunky watch. "He knew he looked good," Ms. Harris said.

Enrica Bologna in one of her clothing stores in Goma.

Enrica Bologna owns several clothing stores where she sells a mix of African fabric and European clothing. “This dress is my own handmade creation,” she said. “I made this for myself because I am really crazy about the SAPE.”

Ms. Bologna said Congo has a problem with gold and that she does as well.

“When I asked her about her gold jewelry, she said, ‘Congo has a problem with gold, and I have a problem with gold,’” Ms. Harris said. “Congo is a place that has a sort of resource curse. A lot of the problems stem from this abundance of resources — gold and oil and other things — so I thought that was an interesting comment.”

Cynthia Lola at Valae & Cy, a high-end boutique. CreditShayla Harris for The New York Times

Cynthia Lola is Ms. Bologna’s daughter. She owns Valae & Cy, a high-end boutique with clothing from European collections. “Everything I wear you can find in my shop,” she said. “So, I really believe in my taste.” Ms. Harris said that Ms. Lola and her mother each made a point to describe style in Congo as a mix of traditional African prints and Western-style clothing. “Her shop was sitting right next to a shop that had African wax fabrics, and they were all kind of within a door of each other, and people were going in and out,” she said. “It was interesting to see that diversity.”

This barbershop called Partners is run by two men, Prince and John, who are considered two of the best hair-weavers in Goma. “One woman I met there actually crossed the border from Rwanda to come to this particular salon to get her hair done for a family event,” Ms. Harris said. “So you know people take their looks seriously.” She noted that there are salons on every other block, packed on Fridays as men and women prepare for the weekend.

Nadia Wete Mwami is a model who finds inspiration in the looks of Kim Kardashian.

Nadia Wete Mwami is a model. “This is not an African style,” Ms. Mwami said of her look. “To me, this is like an American style. I get my inspiration from Kim Kardashian.” Ms. Harris wanted to show what it means to be a young person in Congo who is borrowing ideas from other parts of the world. “She said again as a point of pride, ‘I copy from Kim Kardashian, but the Congolese people copy from me.’”

D.J. Sisco, right. CreditShayla Harris for The New York Times

“These guys walked by, and we actually had to stop them on the street because they looked unlike anybody else I had seen in Goma,” Ms. Harris said of D.J. Sisco, right, who was with a friend outside a men’s clothing shop. His look was a mix of vintage Cazal glasses, prayer beads, a dreadlocked mohawk and a leather attaché. “They’re very much into American and European culture, so they know what other people are wearing,” she said. “So they borrow those ideas and mix it in their own unique style.”

Jeonvier Tabana sells men’s clothing at a shop in Goma.

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.

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