On Didier Gondola's (2016) Tropical Cowboys

One of the books that I have recently read and that I really wanted to write a review of for this blog is Didier Gondola's fantastic publication on the Bills, a cowboy-inspired subculture in colonial Kinshasa. I have tons of notes and have started incorporating some of his ideas and observations in my own draft (obviously with all the appropriate referencing) but somehow I have not quite found the time to write the kind of review this book deserves. In the meantime, I leave you with this nice CNN report on Gondola's research that Thomas Page published 8 December 2015. 

I can't for some reason (copyright, I suspect) share the images here with you. I cannot seem to embed them and I really do not want to enter the grey zone that would be reproducing screenshots of them (after all, I complained about a Nigerian publication violating my copyright not too long ago). 

So, I will leave you with the above screenshot (which I think should be within reason) and a short extract from Page's text.

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.

There are probably many differences between colonial Kinshasa and colonial cities in Nigeria, however, clearly Westerns and in particular the figure of the cowboy also appealed to some Nigerian youth. – And, I'd suspect that their circumstances wouldn't have been all too different from those of the young men who formed the Bills in Kinshasa. In other words, there are some points that Gondola makes here and in greater detail in the book that I consider worth exploring in relation to Nigeria as well.

Gondola credits Buffalo Bill and cowboy movies with providing young, unmarried and underemployed young men with a basis for a collective identity and for new ideas about what it meant to be a man in colonial Kinshasa. Thus, they provided them with ideas about how to dress and how to behave that simultaneously rejected the norms of the villages from which these youth had arrived and the norms that the colonial state and the churches that supported its mission tried to install in them. Of course, these ideas are explored in greater detail in the book but I think they point to something that may be interesting to explore with regard to Nigeria as well.

I have read plenty of criticism of Nigerian youth that took ideas from the movies and, later, TV since I started looking at appropriations of 'the cowboy' in Nigeria. Invariably, they are criticised for abandoning tradition in favour of unsuitable foreign ideas and, thus, criticised as victims of cultural imperialism. These arguments are by no means without value, however, Gondola introduces nuance into that discussion by pointing out, yes, the young men who appropriated 'the cowboy' did rebel against so-called tradition. But, he suggests, in choosing 'the cowboy' as their hero (rather than, say, the colonial officer or the priest) they also rebelled against the norms of the colonial state. In other words, 'the cowboy' fed into their sense of anti-colonial rebellion. Or, let me quote the article and Gondola here:

"Through Buffalo Bill they were able to forge new standards of masculinity," explains Professor Didier Gondola of Indiana University…

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.

One of the things that I have been trying to do in the last few weeks writing was to look at Gondola's ideas and observations and wonder whether and in which ways they could be applied to the cowboy-inspired subcultures that appeared in Nigeria in the late 1940s. – And, what I have found so far is that I do lack the evidence to do more than speculate in many regards. So, I will have to do some more digging before I get back to you about that.

In the meantime, do check out the full article on CNN including the photographs and if you can get your hands on his book do give it a read. It's worth it.


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