Ch. Didier Gondola. 2016. Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence, and Masculinity in Kinshasa

By Rich, Jeremy | African Studies Quarterly, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Ch. Didier Gondola. 2016. Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence, and Masculinity in Kinshasa


Rich, Jeremy, African Studies Quarterly


Ch. Didier Gondola. 2016. Tropical Cowboys: Westerns, Violence, and Masculinity in Kinshasa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 352 pp.

Didier Gondola's new book is a fascinating exploration of changing performances of masculinity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is not only a very valuable contribution to understanding gender in Central African history, but a major contribution to the study of masculinity and cultural appropriation, particularly in colonial contexts. In the 1950s and early 1960s, young men formed gangs in the capital city of Kinshasa. These groups developed their own slang version of the Lingala language drawn from US films and different Congolese languages. They wore cowboy hats, celebrated fighting, strengthened themselves through rituals that sometimes included swallowing glass and bullets, and became a target of outrage from colonial authorities and a source of concern from missionaries.

One of the most valuable aspects of Tropical Cowboys is Gondola's commitment to developing a genealogy of configurations of masculinity from the late 19th century to the present in Kinshasa. Traders in and around Kinshasa competed with each other for access to foreign goods, slaves, and connections in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. As Leopold II's independent state of the Congo seized control over Kinshasa, his government followed by direct Belgian rule after 1908 sought to remake the small city. Gondola analyzes how racist paternalism and growing demands for male African migrant labor into the city created a volatile situation by the 1920s and 1930s. Ironically, missionary efforts to promote cultural activities to tame the threat of angry Congolese men introduced Kinshasa audiences to US cowboy films.

By the 1950s, youth subcultures emerged in Kinshasa that celebrate access to occult power, promiscuity, strength, and avoiding the burden of regular employment. Gondola's examination of bodybuilding and spiritual tests designed to psychologically strengthen individuals in the 1950s (pp. 98-105) is just one example of his fascinating use of multiple oral, written, and visual sources. These practices were designed to impress men and women alike of an individual gang member's prowess. Young men in gangs also simultaneously claimed to be the defenders of women in their families and communities even as they also celebrated sexual violence. Just as dictator Mobutu Sese Seko presented himself as both a dangerous threat and a supposed protector of the Congolese people, so Kinshasa gang members did the same. …

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