Cowboys of Kinshasa: The Hollywood-inspired Congolese youth who overthrew Belgian colonialism

July 03, 2019 at 04:00 pm | History

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley

Nii Ashaley Asé Ashiley | Contributor

July 03, 2019 at 04:00 pm | History

Image source: messynessychic.com

The social, cultural and political atmosphere of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid to late 20th century (1950 onwards) was one characterized by a deliberate suppression of the Congolese natives, specifically the youth.

Most of the young ones from the rural areas in Congo came pouring into the urban centres in search of improved standards of living. They were however met with an urbanized version of the challenges they were running from.

The youth already stationed in the urban areas either by birth or migration were granted access to only primary levels of formal education as advanced secondary academic opportunities were reserved for the white colonialists and their relatives. This drastically limited the scope of their ‘formal’ skills which consequently limited the scope of their employability given well-paying jobs within the formal sector.

A group of Kinshasa Cowboys.
Image source: messynessychic.com

The Belgian colonial regime in the 1950s had also segregated the urban centres, retaining for themselves the best parts of Congo’s urban areas and restrained access to the Black Congolese natives whose land they had encroached upon. But this was of no bother to their ego-stricken minds whatsoever.

Sensing the accumulated frustration of the Congolese youth within the capital city of Leopoldville at the time (now named ‘Kinshasa’) given the sustained rise in crime levels, the colonialists opened up several cinema outfits most probably to give the youth a vent for their pent-up anger; an antidote to their stored anguish.

The presence of the colonialist took a negative toll on the family systems in Congo. The family was one of their traditional institutions of governance and socialization given the growing Congolese child. However, that power was rendered base by the system of governance employed by their Belgian colonialists. Congolese youth therefore found themselves wanting in direction and guidance, persistently seeking ways to assert their importance and the relevance of their existence the best way they knew how.

Whilst some of these Black youth found their center of control in older Congolese urban street legends, the rest found theirs in the cinema houses within the ‘Bill’ character of Hollywood’s ‘Cowboy’ movie series as made evident in Didier Gondola’s; ‘Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence and Masculinity in Kinshasa’. Bill was a Hollywood character painted with strong, bold and success colours; the perceived ideal role model for a group of youthful Congolese natives seeking the most appropriate and socially acceptable ways of channelling their masculinity.

The Hollywood character Bill, therefore, became the masculine shell within which the youth of Congo stashed their fragile selves. Street gangs named ‘Bill’ (named after the Hollywood Cowboy movie character) begun to spring up on the urban streets of Kinshasa with the rise in cinema houses, giving the youth some sense of identity. And though one may argue that such an identity is one forged in ignorance, it was an identity that nevertheless gave the Congolese youth something to aspire for; an individual challenge to best and a group culture to uphold.

A Bill Cowboy in a power pose.
Image source: africarivista.it

The Bill gangs were a radical warring lot. They fought amongst themselves for control over street territories, power and recognition. They became a social image that was feared by both Congolese natives and Belgian colonialists alike. Some members of the gang took it upon themselves to address social injustice whilst others took advantage of their newly acquired status to wreak havoc. Gang members engaged in body building exercises and also used Congolese traditional medicine to make themselves strong; increasing the power of their social status to intimidate rival Bills.

Among one of the many disturbances caused by the Bills in Kinshasa was the riot occurring in 1959. At the forefront of this riot were Bill gang members standing together to demand freedom from the oppressive rule of the Belgian colonialists. It was this disturbance initiated by the Congolese youth who were by this time fed up with the Belgian colonialists that triggered their ensuing independence from colonial rule in 1960.

After Congo’s independence, Bill gang members found themselves in government and military positions, bringing to bear the weight of their adventurous experiences and accumulated life lessons on the growth and development of their motherland.

Most viewed

Conversations

Must Read