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 :