It was hard being a youth in Kinshasa in the 1950s. Known as Leopoldville at the time, the capital of Congo was under the control of Belgian colonialists. Segregation meant there were no-go zones after nightfall and unemployment levels were high. Most residents had no education beyond primary level.
The city was feeling the strain from an influx of rural migrants, largely young men, who flocked to the capital’s poor neighborhoods. Away from their parents it was a hyper-masculine environment, and yet they found themselves infantilized by the colonial class.
Refusing to be cowed, these young men (and in some cases women) were looking for a role model.
They found one in Buffalo Bill.
A very different type of cowboy
The bearded veteran of the American Indian Wars was an instant hit from his first appearance on Kinshasa’s silver screens in 1944.
“Through Buffalo Bill they were able to forge new standards of masculinity,” explains Professor Didier Gondola of Indiana University, whose book ‘Tropical Cowboys’ is due next year.
One would expect the Congolese to identify with the Native Americans on screen, but instead they were fascinated by the white imperialists. To Gondola, this makes perfect sense. “Young people, when they’re watching Manichean movies, will always side with the victors,” he explains. “They’re never going to side with the people who are being destroyed, being defeated; being stripped of their masculinity.”
For these Congolese youths, the cowboy was a symbol of victory, of empowerment and liberation, and many bought into the image wholeheartedly.
Utilizing connections in Belgium, young men began importing Stetsons and leather boots, and donning chequered scarfs. They took on monikers such as “John Wayne,” “Django” and “Sherif,” and fought among themselves for the right to use the name of a particular character.
But the Kinshasa cowboys, known as “Bills” or “Yankees,” were hybrid heroes argues Gondola; figures who also borrowed from their traditional customs.
They were enthusiastic practitioners of “kamon,” a local ritual in which the skin was cut and the ash of dead animals rubbed into the wound. Its purpose: to fortify the cowboys’ limbs and prepare them for battle. In other reported cases men would swallow as many as a dozen needles in their quest for inner strength.
Emboldened, the Kinshasa cowboys then began to emulate their on-screen idols.
Taking their place in history
The Bills were both loved and feared throughout the capital’s communes, “perceived as protectors and predators at the same time,” explains Gondola. They were respected by parents and granted the power to keep children in line but they were also violent. Territorial disputes between gangs were frequent and collateral high. Girls were often used as pawns and rape was seen as a means to “humiliate” rivals.
However, and as with many features of the Bills, their relationship with the other sex was far from clear cut. Some women were in fact Bills in their own right, “drawn peripherally into gangs as girlfriends [or] served as decoys and lookout, and acted as spies,” Gondola explains. Going under masculine names they “behaved just like the boys [and] fought like the boys… and adhered to the masculine ethos of the band.”
For all their infamy, these gangs self-styled after cowboys occupy a unique place in Congo’s history. Between January 4-6, 1959, riots broke out across the capital at a rally calling for independence. At the forefront were the Bills. “They took that spirit of insurrection and spread it all over the townships,” says Gondola. “[In Kinshasa] they destroyed all the symbols of Belgian colonialization and nobility.” After sustained pressure on the streets the Belgian government announced a volte face, and on June 30, 1960 Congo became an independent republic.
Gondola adds: “It wasn’t really the politicians or the trade unions that spearheaded the fall of the colonial regime. It was the young people … the young Bills and Yankees … they are the ones responsible for the first major insurrection in Kinshasa. The country owes a debt to them, but most people don’t know that.”
Lone Rangers still on patrol
In Cecilia Zoppelletto’s new documentary “La Belle at the Movies” old Bills Django and Sherif share fond memories of their time spent in Kinshasa’s gangs, and slip on their cowboy boots one last time.
Talking about meeting the former Bills, Zoppelletto says Django and Sherif appeared “content to live in a world of nostalgia… They have made themselves into symbols of a trend that they remember with affection and without recollection of disorders that they may have been involved with.”
Other Bills went on to have high-profile jobs, particularly within the local music industry. For them all, the cowboy uniform continues to signify self-empowerment.
“All they seem to seek is respect and acknowledgement,” says Zoppelletto, “and the hat, the boots and the jacket gave them that feeling during confusing times for young men in Congo.”