Africa

The Kinshasa cowboys: How Westerns influenced Congo's youth culture

Published 5:32 AM ET, Tue December 8, 2015
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Bill and photographer Jean Depara made Kinshasa his canvas in the 1950s, capturing cowboys like Andrada in the urban neighborhoods they staunchly defended. Depara was an erstwhile shoemaker until 1953, first taking up the camera at his wedding in 1950, when he bought a small Adox camera to record the occasion. His lens would go on to detail myriad examples of pop culture in the bubbling metropolis, but his series on the Bills is among his most famous. courtey Revue Noire/Jean Depara
(Clockwise from top left: Andrada, Hubert Kunguniko, Roy aka Therese Muyaka and Meta.) Many of the Bills came from rural areas, moving to the city by themselves. Away from family, these youths were drawn to each other, forming neighborhood gangs highly influenced by the Western genre of films.
courtey Revue Noire/Jean Depara
(Meta and Therese -- aka Roy.) The outfits of the Bills were largely sourced from Belgium, where family and friends overseas would mail hats, shirts and boots back to Congo. Whilst the vast majority of Bills were male, the gang Depara photographed, led by Andrada, had full female members, who played a full part in gang life -- and were every bit as tenacious in a fight. courtey Revue Noire/Jean Depara
(Meta, one of the female Bills, in full cowboy gear with a toy gun.) The Bills were seen as both protectors and predators. Gang disputes were frequent, and although none of the Bills were armed, they were known as fierce fighters with quick wits. courtey Revue Noire/Jean Depara
François Luambo (aka Luambo Makiadi), Congo's rumba icon and one-time Bill in his own right. Here he wears the checkered shirt, an obligatory symbol for all Bills. Many ex-Bills went on to have prominent positions in post-colonial society, particularly in the music industry -- not surprising considering the importance of singing and guitar playing as a bonding exercise among the Bills. courtey Revue Noire/Jean Depara
Depara also captured other areas of Congo's youth culture. Whilst the Bills were defending their territories, others were heading to the busy clubs of Kinshasa, known for its Polka, Maringa, Tango and Rumba scenes. courtey Revue Noire/Jean Depara