An African in Greenland

An African in Greenland – Book Review

I don’t remember how I came to know about this book but the title – An African in Greenland – and its declared contents captivated me. An African making his dream of living in Greenland come true in the sixties.

I love to travel and read travel stories but most of them are by western writers who ‘discover’ the exotic. But here was someone, not even a well-known literary person, from Africa – i.e., the ‘exotic’, who considers Greenland as exotic and wants to live there.

Why Greenland

Map of Greenland
Map of Greenland

Of course, the story of Tete-Michel Kpomassie gets more interesting knowing why he wanted to live there: having been almost bitten by a snake in rural Togo, he is taken to a snake cult in the forest where its leader promises to heal him on the condition he is given away to them to be groomed as one of them.

But Michel, then just over 16-years old, doesn’t want that life, so he seeks out a country where there are no snakes and he hears about Greenland.

From Togo to Greenland – A Land Trip

The rest of the story is about how he makes his way from Togo to Greenland, living in many countries for many years, learning the local language and mostly working as well.

Tete-Michel Kpomassie

The book, in its English translation, is excellent with vivid descriptions of landscapes and life in general in the fifties and sixties. I am from South Asia where I lived till 1990 and some of his descriptions of life in Togo resonated well with me.

One of the aspects of his experience that captivated me was how welcome the western societies were to him, and how he managed to live and work from place to place as he moved northwards towards his dream destination.

Of course, the heart of the story is his life in Greenland. He describes the lives in southern Greenland and then as he moves upward towards Thule, now Qaanaaq, the northernmost town in the country.

But the stage is set when people stop to stare at him as his boat anchors off in Greenland. From fear to fascination, the locals are captivated by their first sighting of an African man. He was also talked about in the national radio.

He describes the lives of the people, how they live, what they eat etc., One gets to know the differences between the eating habits of the hunters, who depended on game, and fishermen, who depended on fish and how one could not find comfort in the delicacies of the other.

Though coming from a country where food is mostly cooked, our writer quickly adapts to the raw meals of the Greenland society.

As a young man, he was obviously sexually active too and describes often the sexual customs there.

Thoughts on An African in Greenland

What is beautiful about this book is his description of the welcome he received from the locals. He doesn’t declare it openly, but his writing shows his willingness to learn the local customs and language to be part of them.

In the end though he had to give up his dreams of going to Thule because of the winter-related travel issues. It would have meant waiting for many more months, so he decides to return to Denmark.

Kpomassie, now 80-years old and living in France, is a keen observer and is game for adventure. This, along with his simplistic writing makes it a riveting travel book, written by an African for the world.

In an interview with BBC, he said his dream is to end his life in Greenland, an honor to a people who took him in as one of theirs.

Apparently, a movie is being made based on the book.

Life has changed for Greenlanders since the sixties and one could visit Greenland’s official tourism site for more information.

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