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.