Saturday, 23 October 2010

Togo - Tété-Michel Kpomassie: An African in Greenland

The hopes of finding a treasure like Tété-Michel Kpomassie's book An African in Greenland is exactly the reason I started blogging about different countries in the first place, ie. I wanted to find those books from all around the world that I would otherwise have missed if I had stuck to the mainstream and what's popular in my own society right now.  Born in Togo in 1941, Kpomassie developed an obsession with Greenland and spent years working his way through West Africa and Europe, until he could get the money together to go to Greenland, where he spent a year and a half in the 1970's.  The book is about his journey and is an amazing read, I would recommend it to anyone interested in other cultures and the commonalities of human experience.

An African Travel writer

I've read quite a few travel books in my time and several as research for this blog, however, most travel books I've read have been written from an 'anglo-saxon' point of view.  The term 'anglo-saxon' is used widely by the French to describe British culture, but it goes beyond that and is the only way I can think of describing writers from Australia, the US etc., as well as those from the UK and Ireland - it encompasses cultures which are very different from my own, yet we share a common language and there are certain concepts and moral viewpoints that are understood without footnotes.

Reading Kpomassie's book, I found myself somewhere between the African perspective of the writer (although influenced by the European societies he lived in) and the 'strangeness' of Greenlandic culture.  I could relate to many of Kpomassie's experiences as an 'outsider', having also been in this position, but at the same time, the way he interpreted Greenlandic culture said a lot about his home culture and sometimes there were similarities between Togo and Greenland that I could barely relate to at all. 

Love and hate

I guess by learning about someone else's culture, by default, you will also learn about your own and Kpomassie's experiences followed a rollercoaster of emotions in relation to Greenland; idealising the culture and loving it from a distance, becoming disappointed and hating it during his experience there, then finding a middle ground somewhere, that is neither idealisation or disappointment, neither love nor hate, but acceptance of the culture for what it is.  I've been on the same rollercoaster with Russian culture, much more than any of the other countries (or cultures) I've lived in and, in the same way as Kpomassie felt he was predestined to go to Greenland, I feel I was predestined to go to Russia.

Snake cults and leaving Togo

Kpomassie's story starts off in Togo.  When he was a teenager, he had a terrible accident, encountering a snake on a coconut tree he was climbing, he fell off and injured himself.  It doesn't seem like a coincidence that it was during his convalescence that he found the book about Greenland and started to dream of a land far-away from snakes and the heat of the jungle. 

Kpomassie was born into a Mina tribe, with obscure roots in Benin and a special relationship with snake-worship and the snake priestess of Bé, a village hidden in the depths of the forest.  His father took him to the priestess, who said that he had offended the snakes through violating certain taboos.  She eventually helped bring him back to health and rid him of his 'curse'.  As a token of thanks, his father pledged to send him to the snake cult to be initiated as a priest.  Before his father had the chance to send him to the snake cult, Kpomassie ran away to his aunt in the Ivory Coast, starting a ten-year journey through West Africa and Europe, culminating with his trip to Greenland. 

Greenland - culture shock!

His first experience of Greenland was incredibly disappointing, which isn't surprising, considering how high his expectations were.  He first arrived in K'arkotoq in the south of Greenland and was shocked by the reality of Greenlandic society, which he felt had been degraded and debased by the modern world.  Arriving in the middle of summer, he witnessed the excesses of drinking and promiscuity that Greenlanders are infamous for.  He was disappointed by a society that he felt had lost touch with its traditions and preferred to take the easy option, living off benefit payments from the Danish government.  As summer slid into autumn, with its incredible dreariness and the feeling of 'waiting' that drives native Greenlanders into a kind of hysteria, Kpomassie decided to move further north in search of a more traditional way of life.

Man versus Beast

There's a lot of cultural information in Kpomassie's book, but one of the things that really struck me was the constant butchering of animals throughout the winter, in a desperate bid to stay alive.  Most Greenlanders are not, by tradition, fisherfolk, but hunters.  I found the descriptions of animals being cut into pieces disturbing.  Some parts of the animal are eaten raw and, it seemed, at the end of every 'massacre' there was blood everywhere.  I know this is my cultural prejudice shining through, but I'm not sure how I would cope with all that blood and guts!  Some of the poorer villagers would resort to eating their huskies when times got bad but, despite the fact he got used to most Greenlandic foods (blubber, seal skin and raw intestines), Kpomassie couldn't bring himself to eat dog, as culturally, for his tribe, this is taboo.  He pointed out that a lot of the differences in African tribes were centred on food taboos and I think eating habits (snails, horse meat, haggis) are equally relevant in European societies. 

The Race of an Outsider

Of course, in each village he visited, the sight of an incredibly tall black man getting off the boat excited all kinds of emotions in the locals, from fear to hilarity to desire, but the longer Kpomassie stayed in each place, it seemed to me that the colour of his skin was hardly relevant.  Much more relevant was the fact that he was an outsider and, in the minds of most of the people he met, he was categorised as European, like most of the Qashluna (foreigners) the Greenlanders had encountered.  I'm sure anyone who has spent time living abroad, especially in Asia, will soon realise that, as far as the locals are concerned, there is no great difference between British and American or even British and French.  We're all just farang!  There is a funny scene when Kpomassie meets Robert Mattaaq, an old man from Upernavik, in the north of Greenland - the old man says he has a picture of one of Kpomassie's tribesmen, which he'd cut out from a magazine.  When he eventually finds the cutting and lays it out on the table, Kpomassie's kinsman is Charles de Gaulle!

Children should be seen and heard

He experiences other cultural differences, for example, in the way that children are treated in Greenland.  In Togo, the father is the supreme head of the house and there is a rigid hierarchy through elder sons and half-brothers to the youngest child, who is of least importance in the household, especially when the child is a girl.  In Greenland, on the other hand, adults trust a child's intuition above all else and will rarely reprimand or contradict a child.  In the same way, village elders will rarely contradict the beliefs of younger adults and Kpomassie is surprised to visit an old people's home and learn about the former tradition in Greenland that dictated that old people should walk out into the snow and die when they become too much of a burden on the family.  This is a complete contrast to the position old people hold in his native Togo. 

Tarningerneq and Eklan

One belief that was incredibly similar was the way that both Greenlanders and people in the Mina tribe explain the occurence of dreams.  In both cultures, each human being has a soul which can leave the body and go wandering at night (Tarningerneq in Greenland and Eklan in Togo).  The soul goes on all kinds of adventures, in a parallel universe, as it were and returns to the body in the morning, waking us up when it re-enters.  The adventures of our 'dreaming soul' are only remembered as a dream.  In both Greenland and Togo the wandering of the dreaming soul leaves us susceptible to manipulation and attack by dark forces, such as wizards.  If your soul is killed whilst you are wandering, it is believed that you will never wake up. 

In Greenland, however, there are many more types of souls than the three that the Mina tribe believe in and even inanimate objects have souls in Greenland.  Also landscape features, such as mountains and lakes, have souls, which reminds me of Icelandic, Scottish and Irish traditions, kelpies, underground people and even the Loch Ness monster!  I can understand in a barren landscape like the one in Greenland (or Iceland), where there is immense stillness and a general lack of life, that people will start attributing life to inanimate objects and the landscape itself.  In Africa, where every tree and patch of land is teeming with life, I guess there was enough animism to worry about without assigning life to inanimate objects. 

More of the same

The end of Kpomassie's book left me craving more.  I really believe that interacting with other cultures is an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience and I understand the privileged position I'm in as a Westerner, in that I can travel, explore and learn about other cultures.  But there are lots of Westerners travelling and exploring and learning about other cultures.  It's more interesting to read about cultural interaction between two very different cultures, like those of Greenland and Togo.  I guess on some very basic level, all human cultures share the same obsessions and concerns, certainly we all dream at night of faraway lands and experiences beyond our understanding, however we might want to interpret these in the broad daylight of our home cultures.


The copy of An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie that I read was the 2001 reprint as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, with a foreword by A Alvarez and translation from French by James Kirkup.  Kpomassie wrote the book in 1979 - if you want to buy a copy, you can find it on Amazon (this is the link for UK). 

The image of the book cover was taken by me.

The image of the Huskie puppies was taken by flickruser chrissy575 aka Christine Zenino, who is a freelance travel writer and photographer from Chicago.  You can find out more about Christine's work at the following link
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