There is a saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Very few people visiting foreign countries are willing to assimilate to that degree. They stay in hotels, they pick and choose their food, they don’t participate in any pursuits traditional to the area. They’re tourists or they’re travel writers. If the former, they don’t see the country they’re staying in; if the latter, they only tell you what fits the purview of their article, ignoring the rest. Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland offers an unvarnished account closer to amateur cultural anthropology than a memoir.
The modern tendency in memoirs is to talk about oneself and this can be particularly irritating when the writer is offering an eyewitness account of note (Suki Kim mooning after her “lover” while in North Korea, for instance). Kpomassie embarked on his account in a far more professional manner: the early portion of the book is given over to a personable depiction of the events which led him to travel from Togo to Greenland. Once he arrives, the book ceases to be about him and is instead wholly about the country. And yet, ironically, this is the rare time I would have welcomed a little egotism on the author’s part because Kpomassie is interesting enough to warrant it.
Kpomassie was born in Togo in 1941. He was raised in a traditional family – his father had eight wives, older siblings had unequivocal authority over younger ones and in the grip of sickness a white chicken may be sacrificed to postpone death. As a teenager harvesting coconuts from the top of a 60 foot palm tree, Kpomassie had a run-in with a python, knocking it from its perch only to meet it climbing up again. Halfway down the trunk, in terror of getting bit, he launched into space and fell about 30 feet. His father, grateful that the snake had spared his life, intended to dedicate his son to the python cult. Understandably, Kpomassie was a bit put off by the idea. A book he read in the local missionary bookstore gave him the idea of going to Greenland and he ran away from home in 1958.
Kpomassie’s journey was by no means simple. Each step of the way he needed funds. He’d go as far as cash would take him, find friends, get a job and settle in, preparing for the next leg and wrangling an education out of his nomadic lifestyle. During the first few years my lessons came regularly by post, and all was well. But because of my frequent moves, my exercises, corrected in Paris, were seriously delayed before reaching me. So I decided to teach myself, as this seemed to be the best answer for a wanderer like myself, and I embarked on a thorough study of all the French classics, beginning with the sixteenth century. My large suitcases eventually contained more books than clothes. It took him eight years to get from Togo to Greenland. That’s dedication, and it makes for an entertaining human-interest narrative. Once he arrives and meets the Inuit, the tone shifts to a darker register.
Greenland in the 60s was an unhappy place. Long a colonial state under Danish rule, in 1953 they decided to give Greenlanders Danish citizenship – a new policy requiring cultural assimilation. Attempting to graft a modern economic program of wage-earning (where fishing is the chief industry) onto a traditional community of hunters was a bad idea. The result: a lot of able-bodied Greenlanders simply live on allowances from the Danish government. Social engineering didn’t end there, as children were required to complete their post-secondary education in Denmark, resulting in widespread loss of the old ways, a discovery which clearly disturbed Kpomassie. Children are sent to school but are not taught anything about the traditional activities. Even worse, that way of life is disparaged to their faces, although it is their own. When they grow up, they can’t even paddle a kayak. That’s how things are for the Greenlanders on the southern coast. His response was to go further north and the entire book documents his restless drive to meet the true Greenlanders, even trying to reach Thule (though that doesn’t work out and he settles for Upernavik).
Pushback against Denmark came in the 70s and I dearly hope conditions have improved since Kpomassie’s account as An African in Greenland is as much a chronicle of unemployment, casual sex, rampant alcoholism and starving huskies as it is of warm hospitality and natural wonder.
Any travel account has to be judged keenly on the author’s landscape evocations though, and Kpomassie passes muster. There are lovely passages throughout which focus on landscape and weather patterns, from his first view of the northern lights to an early thaw and its surreal demise:
In less than twenty-four hours, the returning ice was thick enough to halt eight fishing vessels as they headed for the coast. The most powerful of them just managed to break a channel, and the others followed slowly into the bay, where they anchored one behind the other. That same night the channel froze, closed in on their hulls, and held them prisoner.
The temperature dropped back to minus forty degrees, so that in mid-March — while winter was drawing to its end in Europe — the Arctic faced intense cold once again … The sea was once more a vast, solid expanse in which captured icebergs alternated with snow dunes polished by the wind and ice hummocks that looked like frozen waves.
The canted ships caught in the pack-ice were like wrecks half buried in the sands of some immense white desert. There being no playgrounds or open fields in the neighbourhood, to my astonishment the young men began playing soccer on the frozen bay during the few hours of light we had each day.
Kpomassie’s anthropological eye takes note of customs, taboos, etiquette and family dynamics. He depicts the Greenland sense of humour, their generosity toward him and their resilience. He eats as they do (though he draws the line at dog meat) and gives unvarnished accounts of fishing, meat processing and dog sledding. He closely observes the different tasks of men and women, their traditional crafts and the treatment of children and old people.
Sometimes, particularly late in the book, he compares Inuit and Togolese culture – comparisons which show Togo to have a higher cultural resiliency, as a disappointed Kpomassie learns that in their amusements, the inhabitants of this western coast have retained hardly anything of their own cultural heritage, nothing that really belongs to them. The accordion which Hendrick tirelessly played was a foreign instrument. As for the Eskimo drums, made of a circular wooden frame covered with a stretched membrane which is tapped on the edge with a slender stick (strangely enough, never on the membrane itself), nowadays they can be found only at the National Museum in Copenhagen! I rather missed the New Year festivities in my home village, where our dances, not copied from anyone else’s, are cadenced to the rhythms of the tom-toms.
As an account of the country, An African in Greenland is not pretty or uplifting. Once he pushes far enough north to where there are still hunters among the fishermen, he discovers packs of huskies, neglected or wholly abandoned by families who’ve gone into fishing to make a living. They aren’t domesticated, are barely fed and as a result they scrounge for food, kill and eat each other and are known to go for children and even grown men on occasion. He also ends up, through a rare failure of local hospitality, left to stay with a degenerate named Thue, in what is the most disturbing part of the book. Thue lives with his family in total squalor and poverty, hunting for a minimal two hours a day, leaving his children in perpetual hunger – and no one in the village offers any aid, for reasons which soon become apparent when Kpomassie tries: Thue had brought back no game, not even a bird, so he asked me for money to buy coffee, biscuits, and some poliki (bacon). Instead of all that, however, he bought ten bottles of beer. Just as he was entering the house with the carton clasped to his stomach, one of his own dogs attacked him, and two of the bottles were smashed. No protective custody, no AA, no good samaritans stepping in, just an old man boozing it up while his children starve. Eventually, they eat the dogs.
These are the moments when I wanted some reflection on the part of the author. The oddest thing about An African in Greenland is in the lack of an emotional culmination. As I said, it’s not written in the modern style. Having made it to Upernavik and met old-timer Robert Mattaaq, he has found what he wanted. He stays with Mattaaq and his family in a traditional turf dwelling, listening to his folktales. He’s content, confidently awaiting a second winter in the Arctic, apparently grown quite close to Mattaaq….and then he changes his mind and decides to return to Africa. The goal no sooner reached than given up. The duty to one’s homeland stronger than the love of a new world. The regret at leaving Mattaaq whom he knows he’ll never see again. The long journey ahead as he prepares the return trip. This is big stuff. Six pages are all it gets. Frustrating.
An African in Greenland was published in 1981, translated by James Kirkup in 1983 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2001. I am happy to see it easily available. Kpomassie settled in France but in this age of air travel has visited both Greenland and Togo often. As far as other reviews go, I seem to be alone in my grim impressions. Maybe most people filter it out. Whatever your impressions, it is an important document and a compelling human-interest story.