<![CDATA[International School of Ouagadougou - Blog]]>Thu, 17 Dec 2015 23:47:21 +0000Weebly<![CDATA["La blanche" Is My Name]]>Thu, 16 Jul 2015 23:04:21 GMThttp://ouagadougou.weebly.com/blog/la-blanche-is-my-nameBy Marie-Angèle Zoungrana

Called "la blanche" although my shade is the color of rotting caramels. Sleeping in a cold air-conditioned room, while my neighbor sleeps on a stained mattress with no pillow. Living in a developing country, that is genetically mine but not culturally. 

The 14 year-old main protagonist of Endangered, Sophie, has lived through similar experiences-- she is also multiracial, and must reconcile two different cultures and selves.

Coming through the sanctuary with deep apprehension about her mother, being called “princesse” (p. 22) by women who took care of bonobo orphans, Sophie made one of her few visits to Congo. Used to living in America, when the rest of her people in Congo do not even have electricity and suffer in poverty, she unconsciously feels guilty. This guilt is expressed when she realizes she should show more affection towards those who have died in the fictional conflict rather than bonobos.

Like Sophie, I live with the constant pressure of reconciling both of my countries in my identity. I often wonder: how could I talk about my two countries as one? Should I value one more than the other?

Being Franco-Burkinabé, I face the hard answers to these questions everyday going to school, to the grocery store, the restaurant… Things that normal people do without getting noticed. But it seems like I always get noticed, just like Sophie. Walking down the road with my all-white cousins, or entering a boutique* where I am seen like a great person to steal money from, I feel like an outsider. In my own countries.

When Sophie arrives from the airport, the man who held Otto spoke to her. As Sophie rolled down the car windows, the man says “Please, la blanche, I have traveled six weeks down the river to bring the monkey here” (p. 4). 

Many may wonder why this man calls Sophie la blanche, when in reality she is half white and black. But it is not surprising when we have two cultures imprinted in our DNA. Zadie Smith, renown British author who is also biracial, wrote: “When your personal multiplicity is printed on your face, in your DNA, in your hair-- well, anyone can see you come from Dream City.” To Whites we are Blacks, to Blacks we are Whites. Even though sometimes these labels are not explicitly expressed, they are present.

Sophie’s personality provides a clear view on the book’s setting. Being of mixed origin, she is able to see the two sides of life in America and in Congo. The contrast between the two countries is flagrant. In Congo, Sophie is valued as the girl who has a lot of money to buy multiple bonobos. In the US, she finds that she is the girl that brings back the cool notebooks for the rest of the girls. 

Similarly when I travel, these differences strike me--especially socially. In Burkina, ignoring someone as I cross the street can be impolite, and could get me in trouble. In France, greeting someone I do not know could feel ‘pushy’, as if I wanted to cause harm, or ask for charity.

Because she has lived the majority of her life in the West, Sophie has a blurred vision of Africa. Through the war, she learns a lot about the continent and its people. At the beginning, Sophie has a vague idea about Congo, which she characterizes as “poor” (p. 8) When she comes back to the United States after this enriching experience in Congo, she finds the desire to return to the Congo in order to start a business. Her views about the country have dramatically changed, as she realized its potential.

For my part, I have always had a precise and distinct feeling about Burkina Faso, and Africa more broadly, that is hard to explain. To me, both France and Burkina are where I belong. It does not matter if I am a little lighter or darker than the rest, it is how I see everything that matters. 

In the end, just like myself, Sophie chooses to focus on the beauty of both of her homes, and to take out the most cultural knowledge as possible to build on the diversity that makes her who she is.
<![CDATA[Like Everyone Else]]>Wed, 15 Jul 2015 23:05:16 GMThttp://ouagadougou.weebly.com/blog/like-everyone-elseBy Maïmouna Kanté

In the beginning, I thought Eliot Schrefer had followed Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece, "How to Write About Africa," which catalogues the various problematic tropes that writers use when writing about the continent. In his young adult novel, Endangered, Schrefer focuses on animals (specifically bonobos), nature, war, corrupt politicians and words like "African mamas." The bonobos in Endangered, as in Wainaina's words are "…treated as well rounded, complex characters."  And let’s not forget our main character, Sophie, "a beautiful, tragic international… who now cared for animals." Wainaina would also describe Sophie’s mother, a Mama Africa as, "a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being."

But to what extent does Schrefer’s novel diverge from the master narrative? 

Schrefer’s novel allows the reader to see African people as people, like anyone else in the world. In other words, Sophie’s journey throughout the Congo is more of a psychological one. She undertakes this journey with an animal that her mother values so tenderly. In doing so, she hopes to connect with her mother, like any other young thirteen-year-old in the world.

I pulled Otto’s arms from around my neck, he making quiet complaints, and set him on the soil floor. I picked up my shirt. I had it half on, one of my shoulders still exposed out of my stretched neck hole, when I realized that in my nervousness I was putting both arms through one opening. Bouain laughed, and in the few moments it took me to rearrange, I found myself unexpectedly thinking of my mother. I got why she’d spent so many years charming boring men. To survive. The position I was in, playing some disgusting politics with this boy, was awful. But it wasn’t the end of the world. The end of the world was that crowd of men on the far side of the door (p. 204). 
Sophie’s journey allows her to understand her mother through the bonobos and other Congolese people around her, as in the passage above. No matter what the risk might be to reunite with her mother, she takes it by building relationships with Otto, the old man on the river, and Bouain. 

The beauty of this fiction is that it could have been set anywhere in the world and its message would have been the same. In this sense, it portrays Africans as humans like you and me. People in the Congo are children, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers that go through similar daily conflicts.
<![CDATA[How do you see me, an African?]]>Wed, 15 Jul 2015 23:03:21 GMThttp://ouagadougou.weebly.com/blog/how-do-you-see-me-an-africanBy Florence A. Nibitanga

You will write about me, or just portray me as Eliot Schrefer does in his novel Endangered. You will remember how tough it was to live in my territory in moments of war, just like Sophie. You will see me as place of unending irrational conflicts just like in the world of the novel, where we read: “The ruling forces of Congo have been fighting wars for years. When it wasn’t the Rwandans, it was the Ugandans. When it wasn’t the Ugandans it was the Zambians. When it wasn’t the Zambians it was the other Congolese.”(p.28)  

If that is how you see me, others will, too. Sophie says that I am poor (p.5) and she sees me as the middle of nowhere (p.1). “[…] descending in the muggy and dangerous back of nowhere” (p.1) When you think about it the back of nowhere doesn’t exist. 

Outsiders “non-Africans” who just see me on television and by other informational means just take what they read or hear as true. The fact of defining Congo as “nowhere” erases my presence from the world map or world itself and gives a role of imaginative place where nobody can have access to. Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, has said: “Showing people as one thing over and over is what they become.” And that is how Africa came to become one monolithic story about poverty, wars, lack of education…

You may think that is all I am. 

But Sophie sees more than that in me. She has come back to work and do business in my territory. “I wound up concentrating my course work on international politics and development” (p.242). Sophie has been an outsider in her own country but has managed to become an insider, by making the choice to accept the nuance of a country that she once viewed as poor.

In his novel, Eliot Schrefer has made a single story multivalent. The darkness confirms what some people have thought and think about me. The end is light that makes me a better place where people can come, invest and invite others. He represented the two sides of my face and has made “a balance of stories”, as Chinua Achebe calls it.

If you allow a balance of stories, you are and you will be enlightened on how you see me.

Make a choice, don’t take time to think about it run, choose your battles and fight to win. Who are going to be? Make it quick you have a limited time; life continues and hours seem to be days. You are in rush, you have to find a purpose in life. Even if you decide to do something that will probably get you killed do it, because you want to. Choose your corner, choose your friends. Become an outsider, so that later you can belong. Deny open arms and velvet words, find your path. Keep walking with eyes closed and opened heart.
<![CDATA[Depictions of Africa in Eliot Schrefer's Endangered]]>Wed, 15 Jul 2015 23:02:11 GMThttp://ouagadougou.weebly.com/blog/how-does-endangered-by-eliot-schrefer-depict-the-congo-and-africa-and-what-is-the-effectBy Sombie Batchema Elisée

Reading Eliot Schrefer’s note at the end of his bestselling novel gave me a lot of respect for him. There, he does his best to be true but unbiased about the situation in Congo, giving his sincere opinions. And yet, he recognizes that he is "no Congo scholar", and maintains a careful restriction to make assertions.

I have researched about the congo in some reliable sources (links below) prior to writing this analysis. I did not want to give a subjective opinion about Schrefer’s work as he depicts some hard-to-accept facts in his book. It is no racism to state something unpleasant about my cherished Africa if it is sadly true. And much of the fictional conflict and instability recreated in Endangered is similar to what has been going on in Congo for some regretful years.

Nonetheless, we can examine and question some of the representations in the novel:

  • “I'd learned to shut all of it [captured animals suffering by the road] out, because you couldn't travel a few miles in Kinshasa without seeing a person dying on the side of the road” (p. 2).

So life in Congo is a constant scene of dying people?

  • “...no one grew up in Congo without knowing what stomach cramps looked like” (p. 11).

Even wealthy Congolese that are used to Congolese foods and can afford potable water?

  • “It was one of those things about living in Congo that I'd once been used to but now found hard to bear: you find something you like or need and then it gets taken away and no one can promise it's ever going to come back” (p.12).

Welcome to the place where only inconsistency is constant!

  • “She was true Congolese, tough and warm, with an amazing broad face from which her soft brown eyes shone” (p. 13).

This description is of the cliché perfect human in the worst imaginable place. She is almost magical–- like the stereotype of the magical negro in fiction.

In reality, one would describe someone like that just because she/he does not know her/him. A writer would do that when compelled to balance with all the bad he/she has hitherto depicted.

  • “Now that I was almost in high school, now that I was talking online to my father in his business suit while he ate breakfast, I felt like an adult – and, more importantly, a member of the world and not only of Congo” (p. 17).

In which sense is Congo less part of the world than the US? Is this Western ethnocentrism manifesting itself?

  • “My dad had picked up a very African sense of humor during his years in Congo. Everyone here constantly laughed at tragedy, as if insulting misfortune would keep it at bay” (p. 19).

Really? Are you suggesting that this humor was an omnipresent part of my identity and that of all Africans...

  • “Patrice and the mamas clapped wildly” (p. 32).

  • "Animals, animals, give us meat, meat!" maybe they figured apes spoke lingala [dominant language in congo]” (p. 107).

The condescending humor, the always-present portrayal of Africans as dumb, animal-like.

  • “In the villages, anyone unusual could be thought a witch. And witches didn't survive very long” (p. 133).

This is an oversimplification. And it is obviously not true. It is over-exaggerating the presence of some obscurantism in Africa. Yet, don't we have superstitions everywhere in the world?

  • “Some of them [rural Congolese] probably think we're still Belgian. Some of them probably don't even know the Belgians ever came” (p. 139).

Do I need to touch that one?

  • “You know Congo. Here you don’t name babies until you know they’re going to survive” (p. 18).

About that one too, I will let you make your personal conclusions.

Singled out, and read by a conscious audience, these representations may not seem that harmful. But combined to the pantheon of misrepresentations of Congo and Africa more broadly, their effects cannot be overlooked. These possibly detrimental effects are especially destructive for educating teens that are making their opinions about Africa. They then paint it as a far away, different from the rest of the world, and a strange place. While Africa is as any other places of the world-– it has its similarities and valuable idiosyncrasies compared to the rest of the world.

The sad truth is, we do not have many bestselling young adult books set in Africa, with African heroes-- well, Sophie, the protagonist, is half Congolese, half American. We also need to take into account that the focus of the book is the survival of Sophie. Schrefer does not claim it as an analysis of Congo through fiction. Endangered is primarily all about how Sophie is going to get herself and her bonobo safe. The author does a pretty good job in not generalizing some Congolese conditions to the whole of Africa. In conclusion, Endangered does more good than harm with respect to its representations of Africa and Africans.

Works Consulted :

  • Http://m.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-democratic-republic-congo
  • Http://monusco.unmissions.org/default.aspx?tabid=10662&ctl=details&mid=14594&itemid=20944&language=en-us
  • Http://www.eliotschrefer.com/#!endangered/c1jkf
<![CDATA[Reading “Endangered” in Africa]]>Wed, 10 Jun 2015 11:27:03 GMThttp://ouagadougou.weebly.com/blog/-the-novel-endangered-by-eliot-schrefer-and-africaBy Dina Ouattara 

The story of “Endangered” takes place in Congo, one of the richest and fastest developing countries in Africa. Sophie, a teenage girl, gives up an opportunity to escape the violent military coup in order to stay with Otto, a bonobo. She proves herself to be courageous in their struggle to ensure their survival. 

However, throughout the novel, we can see representations of Africa that could perpetuate or reinforce misunderstandings of the continent. But contrarily to other white non-African authors, who “tend to” write about Africa in a conventional and predictable way, Schrefer’s story diverges from these tropes, especially towards the end of his novel.

How is Africa? Sophie’s friends ask. “Poor”, she replies and they would move on to a different topic in the conversation. 

I understand why Sophie’s friends’ question could cause a possible difficulty for Sophie to answer. But for a young audience of mixed identities, including young Americans who have little or no knowledge about Africa, Sophie’s response to this question could be really influential. Her answer happens to be as vague as the question.

If you asked me that same question, it would probably be our only subject of discussion for the rest of the day. But we should not blame a young girl like Sophie because we are not sure of the closeness of her friendship with those girls. Maybe they would not be interested in listening to her talk the whole day about Congo, or Africa.

There is so much about Africa, though. Why choose a single word “poor” to describe such a vast continent? Sophie could have found a word other than “poor” because “poor” is a common criteria of identification of Africa. Or she could have simply chosen to not respond. Maybe her friends would ask specific follow-up questions if they wanted to know more; maybe they would take it as “there is nothing in Africa”. But the predominant view of Africa will remain the same; if those views are stereotypical, they will not be challenged.

When Sophie says poor, what does she mean? Does she mean poor in culture or poor in resources? Poor in what?  Sophie herself might not be aware of the implications of her answer. 

The audience of this novel is varied. As a young American, for example, reading this book and not knowing much about Africa, your stereotypical understanding of it as poor may be reinforced. 

You may end up accepting the stereotype that all Africa is poor: either economically, whereas some countries in Africa like South Africa, Nigeria and Congo itself are actually rich in resources and on the road to development; or culturally while in Burkina Faso alone, the country which I am from and live in, has more than sixty ethnic groups, more than sixty cultures. How about politically? There have been bad leaders in Africa sure, but there have been good ones like Nelson Mandela, who have brought peace, equality and stability in their countries.

Taking Africa as a one big country is a misunderstanding that, like Sophie, many foreigners to Africa tend to have of our continent, while it is really diverse in many respects. By making the main character, Sophie, come back to Congo to pursue her studies, Schrefer may succeed in convincing the audience’s mindset to shift from conforming to the standard views and single stories generalizing Africa and providing only one perspective of it, to recognizing that there is also value and uniqueness and diversity in Africa.