Alerted to this unusual tale earlier this year by Futility Closet, I kept “An African in Greenland” in mind, and finally bought it to read on holiday in Spain. It’s an astonishing story of a young boy in Togo, Tete-Michel Kpomassie, who is about to become an unwilling disciple of a snake cult but reads a book about Greenland and is astonished by the world it describes: so much so that he decides he has escape his impending fate and go there.
Over eight years he works and travels his way north through west Africa and Europe, eventually spending around a year in the frozen wastelands of the Arctic, living among the Greenlanders as its first African visitor and finding out about their ways of life. Incredibly, he studies along the way by correspondence and by immersing himself in the strange, unfolding world around him, learning Danish and Greenlandic seemingly with ease.
Three things are astonishing about this book. Firstly, the adventure takes place in the 1960s. This is an age before the internet, before the concept of the global village, and before the forces of globalisation have “modernised”/destroyed (delete as applicable) many of the traditional customs, pursuits and skills of both his home community and Greenland. Perhaps this was the last-ever time that someone might have a genuinely “other-worldly” experience on this earth, finding another corner of the planet that is so unknown, so alien and so utterly fascinating. That Kpomassie’s story would be very different and much less dramatic today means that Kpomassie’s book is a gem for capturing something that could probably never again be done.
Secondly, this is not the kind of travel writing I have read before. Often, a travel writer is a form of interpreter: relating events in a way that is culturally relevant or in a context that would be understood by readers. But this is not someone from a familiar culture to me writing about something unfamiliar or exciting in a way that a reader like me can relate to. This is not a Scot or an Australian in Greenland – the writer is an alien voice, both in the way he writes and also the cultural norms that are his starting point. Rather than moving from the known to the unknown, this is someone moving from – to a white, westernised European – one unknown to another. The story is, consequently, fascinating. While we are given some cultural context so we know a little about where Kpomassie is coming from in some of his observations, his refreshingly different starting point (culturally, geographically, terminologically) lets us (Europeans) see Greenland through a very strange but wonderful pair of eyes.
For instance, he frequently – both in Greenland and en route – knocks on doors to seek hospitality. In a credit to his boldness and charm, he usually receives it. But while a European observer might be tempted to dwell on this unlikely kindness from strangers and the audacious courage of the man asking, Kpomassie frequently (but not ungratefully) glosses over this, perhaps a reflection of Togo’s very different cultural attitudes towards the treatment of visitors.
Thirdly, Kpomassie pulls no punches in his descriptions, particularly of people. This is not a romantic, idealised portrait of a wilderness, nor a determined attempt to make the reality live up to the dream, and nor does he demonstrate any sense of obligation to the Greenlanders to dress up the truth in a polite way.
While he is quick to praise the good, for instance the hospitality he receives and the central role that he sees children play in the family, and he is keen to mention the warmth in the friendships he makes, the writer is also not slow to criticise. He sometimes scornfully questions Greenlanders’ lack of hospitality to each other (and very occasionally to him); he condemns their frequent drunkenness and loose sexual morals (despite himself occasionally indulging on both counts); and he is not wholly positive about the food, the work ethic, the treatment of animals and many of their customs that he experiences.
Perhaps it is a characteristically African bluntness, or perhaps the writer feels that honesty is the best policy in describing a people he has dreamed for years of visiting; but either way it is refreshing. In the end, the numerous positive experiences he has, the friends he makes, and the engaging way in which he describes his journey and the beautiful landscape, altogether do paint Greenland in a broadly good light, and leave the country a demystified yet still compelling place.