Some years ago it wasn’t weird to see kids playing with toy guns while wearing Stetson-like hats with bandanas around their necks. The image of the cowboy was so popular that people all over the world fell for the charismatic and enigmatic personality of their western heroes. Being the American genre par excellence, the story of the genre is wide and truly interesting. Some experts claim that it dates back to the early years of the nineteenth century with the famous expeditions conducted by the famous Lewis and Clark. Others believe that it started way before this with the first settlers in Jamestown. But it was really by the 1860s when the first western fictions (pulp magazines) began to appear and become widely known. The idea of the untamed and wild land was so intriguing that it soon became the ultimate theme and setting to develop popular stories.
Soon Hollywood started producing movies set in the Old West and presenting archetypical characters that ended up creating one of the most successful formulas of all times. During the Golden Age of Cinema, over 200 movies were released per year ––yes, almost one per day. And thus the cowboy became the symbol of freedom and the American ideal. It’s even said that some of the most important western heroes represented the president at the time they were made, but that’s another story. The point here is that it was such a hit in the United States that soon their ultimate heroic figure was exported to the rest of the world. And as such, the cowboy or, after the forties, the gunfighter became the supreme hero around the world. Not only were they extremely masculine and brave, but they also carried a set of moral values many looked up to. But the story we’re talking about today is about the influence it had during the fifties (still the peak of the genre) in Belgian Congo’s youth.
Still a Belgian colony, segregation became unbearable, especially for the youth who wanted a better life. The education system was terrible and no one could go further than finishing primary school. At the same time unemployment was severe, thus many suffered from extreme hunger. The youngest members of the families started abandoning their hometowns, seeking new opportunities in the big cities, but the only thing they found was an even worse misery. Alone and in despair, they soon began gathering around and creating a sort of community to support each other, but as it happens when desperate and enthusiastic people meet, they started talking about the terrible conditions they were enduring and started figuring out what could they do to stop it.
By the time, American films were screened in cinemas in cities like Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), and soon, these youths, hungry for a role model to follow, found in cowboys a beam of hope different from the important figures they were used to. Soon, they started adopting not only the look of their western heroes, but also their attitudes and philosophy on life. They created gangs or groups that were known as the “Bills” or “Yankees.” They wore checkered shirts, jeans, cowboy leather boots, Stetson hats, and bandanas, and soon were loved and feared by the entire city.
Many thought these young people were betraying their traditions and culture by looking to a Western and imperialistic ideal, but their admiration for these characters wasn’t based on that. They were tired of both the Belgian dominant regime and their own Congolese submissive examples. So they saw these western heroes as symbols of freedom, strength, bravery, and a moral code they could relate to.
As it happens when these movements get more affiliates, the ideals soon turned into gang quarrels resulting in extremely violent confrontations and other sort of criminal activities, such as raping the women of the other gang to prove their power. These acts finally led to their disappearance. However, these characters or subculture, as it’s often referred to, have a more important relevance in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, than they’re recognized for. For starters, these were one of the first groups that allowed women to participate. In fact, those fully committed to the movement received an equal treatment as anyone else. Despite the fact that they were also focused on the masculine portrayal of their American heroes, and devoted a lot of time and effort on working out to become stronger, there were many women who wanted the same. They wanted to prove they were as strong as their peers, and they managed to do so.
Finally in 1959 there was a riot in the capital that eventually led to the independence of the country. In front of all the fighters were these Bills or Yankees, and according to Professor Didier Gondola in his book Tropical Cowboys, their role in the independence movement is bigger than people want to acknowledge or know. These groups started discussing subjects such as rebellion, independence, and nationalism, themes not many in the country dared to deal with. After all, the western genre is all about praising nationalistic ideals. Their attitudes and search for freedom were the spark that kindled a revolution. Perhaps, that’s right, and we as young people are entitled to change our reality.
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Photographs by Jean Depara, a Congolese cowboy himself.