Country Focus: Togo
An African in Greenland
By Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Translated by James Kirkup
Introduction by A. Alvarez
Originally published in Paris by Flammarion as Africain du Groenland, 1981.
My edition: New York Review Books, 2001
About the author: Kpomassie won the Prix Littéraire Francophone International for An African in Greenland. He lives in France, but returns to Greenland often and plans to move there permanently.
While high in a palm tree cutting coconuts, the young Kpomassie gets frightened by a snake and leaps to the ground, injuring himself grievously. His father takes him to the renowned healer of a python cult in the nearby sacred forest. Kpomassie recovers. As payment for his son’s life, the priestess asks that Kpomassie return to the forest in six weeks to join her priesthood.
Horrified by this proposition, Kpomassie dreads his fate. By pure chance, he happens upon a book that will change his life forever: The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska by Dr. Robert Gessain. Charmed by the photos and the description of a culture so different from his own (no snakes!), he decides to hightail it to Greenland.
An African in Greenland is the account of how he reaches Greenland—an eight-year journey—and the two winters he spends in that distant land. The majority of the book takes place in Greenland and describes the peculiar culture of the Inuit..
Kpomassie’s story boggles the mind. I was astonished both by his dogged pursuit of his destination, and especially by his ability to arrive in an utterly foreign environment, learn the language, make friends, and earn travelling money. He’s also talented writer. His unique perspective, surprising eloquence, honesty and keen descriptions makes An African in Greenland a fascinating read.
My final preparations had been simple. A stroll around Nyhavn, a picturesque district near the harbor, enabled me to pick up an old pair of American army boots at a bargain price, an overcoat with a quilted lining, two woolen pullovers, and two pairs of mittens. This was the extent of the equipment I assembled to answer the call of the north. I suppose I was traveling light. My adoptive father had presented me with an ancient folding camera that he had owned for a quarter of a century. Finally, I bought some paper for a diary. All this was squashed into a rucksack.
I had decided to travel by ship: it would be rash for someone like me suddenly to come up against intense cold after only a few hours’ flight, whereas a sea voyage of several days would allow me to adapt gradually to the climate. Quite a sensible idea, coming from one so often accused of lacking common sense.