- Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence, and Masculinity in Kinshasa by Ch. Didier Gondola
"Tropical cowboys," or "Bills," the male and sometimes female Kinois youth who have been inspired by the American Far West cowboy Buffalo Bill Cody, have prowled the streets of Kinshasa since the 1940s at least and continue to prowl them today. They are, Ch. Didier Gondola argues, part of the "ebb and flow" continuum of derelict "interstitial" youth who were able to transform Kinshasa through their unique language (Indoubill), performative culture, and rebellious ethos (3–4). A significant contribution to "critical men's studies," or "gendered writing on men in Africa." Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence, and Masculinity in Kinshasa focuses on "youth, masculinity, and performative violence" in Kinshasa from roughly the late 19th century until the present using a variety of archival, oral, and pop culture sources, all while charismatically spanning the fields of gender studies, film studies, and history (2).
In part I, Gondola attempts to trace the flexible continuity of constructions of masculinity and manhood from "local sources, fragments, and experiences" pertaining to big men in Malebo Pool, where the village of Nshasa (Kinshasa) once stood (17). He argues that precolonial Congolese men asserted manliness through mastery and expression of oratory skills (using proverbs), socioeconomic mobility, economic trade (hunting, fishing, trading), and access to nkisi (mystical power) and guns. Later, Gondola explores the ways that Belgian colonial ideology reinvigorated racist Hegelian tropes about Africa and Africans through social Darwinism. Depression and mass deportation also contributed to emasculation in the overcrowded labor market as men took jobs as launderers and cooks, which were seen as women's work (39). However, in the theaters, African viewers of "educational" and imported films appropriated, rejected, and transgressed (which he calls détournement) what was being shown by creating a "cinematic literacy with which to combat incipient charges leveled at them by whites and members of the African 'elite' who scoffed at their inability to 'get it'" (67). [End Page 204]
Gondola focuses on the ways that gangs of Bills, who had fallen through the cracks of the trifold colonial strictures of state, mission, and business, used Hollywood portrayals of the American Far West to construct their own masculinities in part II. He then traces youth interstitiality in Kinshasa, from the 1920s up until the 1940s, when the city was involved in a youth and masculinity crisis. The Bill's cult of violence, or gang fighting, was "a performance, a contest, a ritualistic outburst of violence that did not necessarily drive a wedge between two gangs" (112). Rituals such as kamô (a magical ritual that could determine the outcome of fights), kintulu (bodybuilding), and billing (fights) were crucial to Billist masculinity, sexuality, and manhood. However, these Bills or Yankees were "above the ethnic fray," adhering instead to seniority by obeying older Grand Bills (97). Gondola also explores the 1957 Bissot Report, which sympathized with unemployed youth but also exposed the Bills' "recurring pattern[s] of homosexual behavior," thus showing the possibilities of homoeroticism within this hypermasculine cult (155). And yet heterosexual sexual predation was also very much a part of Billism and male bonding, although it was complicated by the Bills' roles as both predators of other township girls and protectors of their own. For instance, families in Bills' townships often were grateful to them for "keeping township girls in line," as they saw rape as a corrective to female "wandering" (142). Ultimately, the Bills' hegemonic masculinity was expressed through territoriality, toughness, invincibility, and sexual coercion, or éboulement, which made them often sexual predators and rapists (120).
Part III is mainly concerned with the gradual end of Billism in the mid1960s during and after Mobutu Sese Seko's ascendance to power. Gondola also spends chapter 7 exploring how Jozef de Laet, a Belgian missionary who was fully inducted into the Bill movement and was known as Père Buffalo, interacted with Bills and was able to "transfigure Jesus into the über Bill and [distill] a gospel in which manliness was next to godliness," thus helping Bills...