International cowboy culture: Africa

There are certain sorts of American cultural that we know found an international audience. Jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop can claim both fans and creators worldwide. It's not terribly surprising to learn that people lock, pop, and 6-step from Cairo to Tokyo.

For some reason, the international popularity of the cowboy is a little more perplexing, and least for me. I'm not talking about cowboy movies or western songs, by the way. Most of us know that there was a thriving Italian market for cowboy films, and some may be familiar with more far-flung examples, like the cowboy movies of the former Soviet States called Osterns. No, I'm talking about people in other countries who live a cowboy lifestyle, especially one inspired by cowboy movies.

Perhaps it is because the image is so wrapped up with the mythology of the American west, discovering that other countries have thriving subcultures or explicitly political movements that base themselves on cowboys is a bit vertiginous. But it's also delightful; here are a few of my favorites. This time I will focus on cowboy subcultures in Africa, but this is a well I will return to.

Bills (Congo)

Leopoldville, now known as Kinshasa, bore the brunt of Belgian colonialism in the 1950s. The youth of the city, including many migrants from rural Congo, suffered high unemployment rates, as well as few educational opportunities; most were never educated beyond a primary level. But they did have access to movies, as there were at least a half-dozen theaters in the segregated African section of the city.

For whatever reason, they especially gravitated toward Buffalo Bill, especially as played by Charlton Heston in the 1953 movie "Pony Express," whose showy masculinity they emulated. They dressed in locally made cowboy clothes and called themselves Bills or Yanks, and adopted Western-sounding nicknames, like "John Wayne" and Django. They even developed their own argot, called Hindoubill, which was deliberately incomprehensible to outsiders.

ZWAM (Madagascar)

ZWAM (Zatovo Western Andevo Malagasy or Zatovo Western Amical Malagasy)  was a political movement that emerged in the early 1970s in Antananarivo, the capital and largest city in Madagascar. The group largely existed as part of a larger movement of student protests against then-president Philibert Tsiranana, who, among other things, had banned the mini-skirt.

The group was unusual in two regards: They were largely descended from slaves, and, as the word "western" in their name indicates, they dressed like cowboys. More specifically, they dressed like Clint Eastwood, as the members were fans of Spaghetti Westerns. According to "The Sacrificed Generation: Youth, History, and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar," by Lesley A. Sharp, ZWAM saw Eastwood in Sergio Leon's movies as "the champion of real justice" over "the venal guardians of formal law"

Gaborone Metalheads (Botswana)

Half of the African nation of Botswana live in rural areas, many raising livestock, so perhaps it is not so surprising that there are locals who find the image of the cowboy attractive. What is surprising, however, is that they are largely heavy metal fans.

As documented by photographer Frank Marshall, Botswana's metal scene is large, dedicated, and clad in back fringed leather and cowboy hats, a look that manages to be a little bit fetish club, a little bit biker, a little bit apocalypse, and 100 percent awesome. Heavy metal bandmember Giuseppe Sbrana told Vice magazine the following: "They mix the cowboy image with a biker metal look. Many wear hunting knives and parts of dead animals. We drink from the hollowed-out horns of cows."


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