Tété-Michel Kpomassie was born in Togo. The first few chapters of his memoir, An African in Greenland, are spent establishing the everyday African life of his boyhood: palm trees, steamy heat, spicy food, catching lizards, snake worship, and the family structure in which his father was head of the clan but his father’s five wives all had a say in family matters. (I was strongly reminded of Camara Laye’s Enfant noir, which takes place in nearby French Guinea.)
Everything changes, however, when young Michel runs across a book about the Inuit people of Greenland. He instantly decides that he must visit this impossibly far-off, impossibly different land — with no trees! with no snakes! how can such things be? — and that nothing, least of all his own youth and impoverishment, will stop him.
It takes Kpomassie more than eight years to work his passage across Africa, through France and Germany and Denmark, and up to Greenland. He receives some stunning hospitality along the way — people who hear his desire to see the frozen north and simply allow him to move into their homes for periods of years — and also some suspicion. One commissioner at Copenhagen feels the need to spell out the precise difference in temperature between Togo and Greenland. But he finally arrives.
It is here that the book becomes a little peculiar. Kpomassie seems to think of himself as an ethnologist, though as far as I can tell he has no training at all. (To be fair, nor did many of the explorers who gave us very fine accounts of their travels during the 19th century.) The book, therefore, is an odd and endearing mixture of careful observation and personal reaction. It’s culturally layered, too: Kpomassie comes from Africa, but he comes by way of years in France, and he knows his primary audience will be French. When his reactions come from his own African background, then, he foregrounds them as exotic in themselves. Twice the foreignness for your money!
A good example of this is Kpomassie’s visit to a home for the elderly. He looks at the handicrafts they make, some of the only examples of authentic Greenlander culture that he sees the entire time he is in Greenland. He spends time listening to their stories. Finally, he makes an extended comparison between the way the elderly are treated in Greenlander culture and the way they are treated in Togolese culture:
On the other hand, an old Greenlander will seldom contradict one of his own family. Here, the father neither scolds nor punishes a child, whereas in Togo he derives such authority from the respect due to age — a passive, abject, uncomplaining submission — and from the deep-seated belief that the old wield secret powers for good or for ill, that not only families but even political regimes depend upon them and upon the traditional chiefdoms. I cannot imagine our Togolese patriarchs ever agreeing to end their reign in old people’s homes.
Kpomassie experiences modern Greenlander culture, from the top to the bottom. He lives with ordinary people both wealthy and extremely poor. While he makes no explicit judgments about the societal divisions between the Danes and the Greenlanders, he does make several comments about the disappearing native Greenlander culture, and thoroughly enjoys what of it he sees: food, clothing, traditional fishing techniques, and all. After a year spent there, he feels at home, and only convinces himself to leave so that he can tell others about this land he’s learned to love.
This book is a little tricky. On the one hand, Kpomassie looks like he’s being objective, with his detailed descriptions of native dress and customs. On the other, his very subjective responses to the treatment of dogs, the taste of seal blubber, and the behavior of unruly children sprinkle the book. I don’t look for objectivity in my travel memoirs — far from it! Otherwise I’d never be able to enjoy most of the ones I read. I just mean to point out some of the odd narrative tricks in this one, that make it stand out from the crowd.
I read a very bumpy translation from the French by James Kirkup. Some of the translation seemed to go all right, and then I’d read a bit and think, “That’s much too literal; I’m quite sure that’s not what he meant.” There doesn’t seem to be more than one translation out there, however, so if this interests you — and it should — I’d risk the Kirkup. Try the New York Review Book edition, which has an introduction by A. Alvarez. The one I read had an extremely patronizing introduction by Jean Malaurie, implying that Kpomassie stands for Dark Africa and that the Greenlanders stand for All Eskimos; I don’t recommend it. The book, however, I do recommend as engaging and interesting and a worthwhile read.