Tete-Michel Kpomassie: An African in Greenland

April 17, 2015

9780940322882I don’t remember what prompted me to re-read this wonderful travel book, but it was well worth it. Tete-Michel Kpomassie is from Togo where, as a boy, he had a fearful encounter with a snake; reading in a book about Greenland, a country where there are no snakes, he decides he will go there. He leaves home as a teenager in the late 1950s and travels and works his way there gradually, continuing to educate himself, earn money through various menial jobs, and receiving help from benefactors along the way…it takes him about twelve years altogether, from when he runs away from home until his first landing in Greenland. And he doesn’t really understand what the idea of ‘freezing’ means.

You can’t help but respect his determination and perseverance, and you love his cheerfulness and good humour: he never once thinks of giving up. Finally he sails from Copenhagen into a world of ice and lengthening nights, and the shock effect on the Greenlanders of the first black man arriving there is astonishing, too.

He is thoughtful and observant, comparing customs of Greenland and his native Togo and finding connections. He soon tires of the alcohol and loose sexual behaviour in the towns; he wants to move further north, to explore and experience traditional Greenland hunting and fishing which is gradually dying out; he learns the language – Inuit (he already speaks Danish) – spends time on fishing boats, drives husky teams, shares food and women and learns how people cope with the winter nights.

There is a marvellous sense of warmth and humanity about him, and his response to the people he meets and who welcome him. In the end, after spending sixteen months there, he realises he could stay for the rest of his life, but realises he has a duty to return home and teach his people about what he has lived and experienced. It is a truly wonderful and heart-warming book.

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