From the tropics to the Arctic

Even without the imprimatur of the New York Review Classics (a series that has revived many outstanding books), I would have been intrigued by the title An African in Greenland. Having grown up in a climate with cold winters (Minnesota, then schools in Michigan and Ontario), snow and cold have no fascination for me. I much prefer being where I can drive up to snow if I feel any inclination to re-experience it (and then drive down again) instead of living with it and living through winters. More intense Arctic ones have no attraction for me–except as an armchair traveler.


Once in a while, I read with interest about those who live in the Far North. Books about participant observation of Inuit lives that stick in my memory are Kabloona, The Last Kings of Thule, and Never in Anger, exceptionally well-written as well as insightful books written decades apart (and which I read decades apart, if fewer) of them. Togo-native Michel Kpomassie’s book first published in French in 1981 and in English in 1983 is also vividly written and has the added advantage of presenting an African perspective.

More than an African perspective, in that the book begins with dramatic and vivid accounts of his adolescent encounter high in a coconut palm tree with a python and its brood. This led to a hair-raising (at least for this reader) ceremony of being licked by a(nother) python and being pledged to the python cult. Partly, Kpomassie’s flight from his homeland (the Watyi people of the Atozta district of Togo) was impelled by his father having promised him to a python cult priestess. That was the push.

The pull, the particular destination of the frozen north, was a book titled The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska by Dr. Robert Gessain (a book that I have never heard of and cannot find either in the Berkeley catalog or Amazon, though I can find a book by Gessain about the “”Eskimos”” of Angmagssalik) that he bought at the Evangelical bookstore (“”the shelves of their shop were laden with school textbooks and religious primers. However, from time to time, as if in error, the occasional travel book or a novel would find its way onto the shelves.”


Kpomassie was fascinated by the clothes shown in the book, encouraged by reading about the hospitality of Greenlanders. intrigued by a world of (completely exotic) snow and ice. And a place where there were no snakes also sounded wonderful to him.

Getting from Togo to Greenland was not easy. Indeed, getting from country to country in Africa was not easy. (I already knew that to fly from one African capital to another, it’s necessary to go to London or Paris and then back to the next country.) Kpomassie quickly discovered that the celebrations of African unity were solely rhetorical:

“”Freedom of entry to other African countries had not been laid down in that ambitious program [of Nkrumah, Nyere, et al.] for unity. It soon became obvious that it existed only in leaders’ speeches! Ironically, we could move across frontiers more freely in colonial times. Now, because of an absurd nationalism springing up between supposedly brotherly neighbors, each country in Africa insisted on passports and visas, inventions of the white, while denigrating the same whites to their people.”” (56)

The pan-Africanism particularly of Kwame Nkrumah did help him, however. Kpomassie worked as a translator (French-English) in Ghana’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal for two years (and another six months for the embassy of India).

Kpomassie set off for Greenland in 1959, but “”in this era of interplanetary flight, it took me six years to get out of West Africa.”” It took another two to get from Marseilles to Copenhagen (earning money in Paris, and de facto being adopted by a cultured bachelor with a luxurious apartment in the 17th arrondissement. There were more problems getting across Belgium and getting approval to sail from Copenhagen to Greenland. It took Kpomassie eight years to get from Togo to Greenland (with a lot of help supplementing the money he made from various jobs en route). He was 24 years old when he got there.

Getting out of southern Greenland to the frozen land of Inuit hunters also proved difficulty–but what would travel literature be if there were no difficulties to surmount? Reminiscent of moving across Africa, again “”local transport posed a problem: a journey from Copenhagen to any large community in Greenland is easier than a trip from one locality to the next.”” While in southern Greenland, Kpomassie learned that the hospitality he had read about (including sharing wives) was true. He was dismayed to have no private life. And that “”it is more blessed to give than to receive”” was a notion that he found troubling when it came to women. That is, he didn’t mind having a woman sent to sleep with him or choose to sleep with him, but felt possessive and unwilling to share the “”favors”” of his bedmates. He also felt that the women “”were only half-willing,”” but “”like the co-wives in my native land [his father had eight wives], they seemed resigned to an age-old tradition.”” Later, he began to form a functionalist explanation (a form of insurance for the families in case a husband was killed) for alliances “”cemented”” in wife-swapping.

None of the Greenlanders had ever seen a man with black skin before, and there was much curiosity about him (including wondering if his penis was also black). Children wanted to touch his hair and skin. He acceded, being there in considerable part because of his own curiosity about lifeways and environment very different from his homeland. Despite the psychological strains of the seemingly eternal dark of winters and the total lack of darkness in the summer, he seems to have remained genial and much less concerned than the Inuit of seeming ridiculous. (“”Although Greenlanders love to make fun of others, they fear ridicule themselves.””) He learned to drive dog sleds, hunt and fish Inuit style, and slurp down seal blood. (He was amused at the appreciation they had of seal blood and fastidious dislike to seeing (let alone consuming) even a drop of fish blood. (I think this refers to the Europeanized Greenlanders rather than the Inuit: see Jared Diamond’s Collapse.)

He eventually learned to enjoy eating seal and whale blubber, but never was able to overcome a strong aversion to eating dog. He reflected that “”Greenlanders would probably be put off if they had to eat the unclean beasts [in the Watyi view] enjoyed by some African tribes—monkey, crocodile, or snake.” He also noted that “”though tradition both in Greenland and my own country burdens women with the harshest mourning regulations, nevertheless, it is always their fault–through the violation of those regulations–when evils descend,”” usually through the same idiom–ghosts.

He also found parallels between Togo and Greenland conceptions of the spirits of animals and the need to propitiate the spirits of the animals that are hunted. This leads to an interesting discussion of attracting and imprisoning the souls of whales..

Although his hosts want him to stay and tell him “”Your place is here with us,”” and he feels that he could live happily ever after in Greenland, he decided that he needed to go back and “”help the youth of Africa open their minds to the outside world.””

The book does not go into what he did–other than write this fascinating book, which is definitely no small accomplishment–. The introduction (ca. 1980) by the distinguished French ethnologist of Arctic peoples, author of The Last Kings of Thule, Jean Malaurie (which, unfortunately, has not been included in the NYR edition) reported that , having had some anthropological training, Kpomassie planned to return to Greenland (with a wife from Burgundy and a five-year-old son. I have not been able to find any publications of later participant observation.

As Malaurie wrote, the perspective of a young African is an interesting one. The comparisons that occur to him are not those that have occurred to Europeans living with Inuits. Many have been more inhibited about telling stories, particularly involving their sexual participant observation (or inhibited about that kind of participation).

The book was translated into English by James Kirkup, who has translated many books (including Guinese novelist’s Camara Laye’s Dark Child as well as producing books in his own write (including These Horned Islands and The Tao of Water. It reads very well. The telling details had to have come from Kpomassie, but the readability in English must owe something to Kirkup (who has long lived in Japan and knows a thing or two about adjusting to alien expectations).

Compared to Jean Malaurie, who writes with great authority on the Inuit, the NYR edition has an introduction by A. Alvarez, whose qualifications for the task are mysterious to me, and who clearly is ignorant of French anthropology (believing that Claude Lévi-Strauss held sway in 1981). Because he wrote a book titled Offshore: A North Sea Journey, about the Shell Oil rigs at Brent Fields, north of Scotland? I’d have kept Malaurie and asked Jean L. Briggs (author of Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family and Inuit Morality Play) to add a new one.

©2006, 2018, Stephen O. Murray