Congolese are known to be fashionable. We found this out even before we left for Kinshasa, and Nana and I were relieved to find this out for several reasons. We both enjoy wearing nice outfits, and we had been very nervous when a local source suggested that while in Kinshasa we wear "water-proof, breathable hiking shoes with a good grip." Yikes! I don't even own socks!
We had been wondering, "Are hiking shoes really necessary? Even if it's not as practical, could we get away with heels?"
So when my friend Kahindo Mateene, owner and designer at Modahnik, told us that Congolese love fashion and that we don't have to walk around in hiking shoes all the time, we were delighted!
As we drove through the city of Kinshasa, Nana and I kept noticing the many men and women in absolutely stunning clothes - some in bold colors/patterns, some in haute couture, some simply dressed in a crazy mix of everything (a man dressed in a fur vest, leopard shirt, hot pink skinny pants, huge hat and sunglasses, etc.) Not all their styles were things I would prefer to wear myself, but one thing was for sure. They wore their clothes with confidence, and they really pulled it off!
Have you ever heard of the "Sapeurs"? They are members of the "Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes" - the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People. This group began in Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of Congo, but there are many Sapeurs in DR Congo as well. The people belonging to this group simply dress extremely well and turn any street they walk on into fashion runways. They are not at all rich. In fact, like most other Congolese, they must find many odd jobs in order to survive, and they often borrow clothes from one another in order to achieve variety. But they are creative. They go above and beyond to not only find, but to also protect the clothes that fit their esthetics and make them feel good. The Sapeurs say they do this because there's a lot about life they can't choose, but they can choose who they are - elegant people.
Does this sound shallow to you? Do you think it's just an illusion, and that they are just fooling themselves? Dressing elegant and seeming rich may not change the harsh realities of the world they live in, and perhaps they are just escaping from it all. But I for one, don't think it's shallow at all. Escaping? Certainly not. It's about finding a way to counterbalance their outer reality in order to stay true to who they really are, on the inside.
When I first moved to New York, I didn't have any work for the first 6 months and I was broke. One day I discovered that a slice of pizza in NY was so big and so cheap! Trying to save what precious money I had left, I would purchase one slice, cut it into thirds, and made it my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I thought it was brilliant, and I was happy to have a solution to my problem.
Although the pizza kept me full, I started to feel very unhappy after a while, for no particular reason. Then it started affecting my flute playing, as I started sounding more.. aggressive (which is not how I ever want to sound!) I couldn't really figure out why for a while, as I was happy saving money, and I honestly really like eating pizza.
Then, I remembered something my mom used to always say. "If you don't have money, don't spend it on things like dresses or air conditioning. You can live without it. But good meals are important. It makes you feel rich on the inside!" You see, I came from a mother who truly believed in the power of elegant food. We were not rich, but she always made sure we ate really well. I began to wonder if my reason for unhappiness may have nothing to do with how much money I had.
Maybe it's because this was part of my upbringing, and I knew how much my mom cared about this. I realized that the 3-piece pizza meals, no matter how cost-effective, were not helping me keep "rich" on the inside.
I think it's nice to have something that makes us feel "rich on the inside." It doesn't have to be something of high monetary value, or something that's special for everybody else as well. For me, it's something that my family helped shape, and I chose to keep it. The point is, when we have that special something, we feel more inspired, fulfilled, content, and happy, all of which can lead to us having less of a need to be angry and greedy.
Of course, we must all balance our needs in the physical world with our inner needs. Sometimes, I need to put on my hiking shoes, or live off Pizza. But I personally don't think it's shallow to feel strongly about wanting to look nice, or eat good food.
My inner-rich maker is good food.
For the Sapeurs' it's looking beautiful.
For the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra it's music.
What's yours? :)