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An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel…

An African in Greenland (1981)

by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

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Tété-Michel Kpomassie grew up in Togo, in West Africa. When he was a teenager, he fell out of a tree during an alarming encounter with a python, and was taken to the priestess of a snake cult to attend to his injuries. The priestess was apparently quite impressed with him and suggested that once he was better he return to become a priest himself. The boy had no desire to do this, but he father was in favor, and in his culture, a father's word is law.

But before the deal could be done, Kpomassie happened to read a book about so-called "Eskimos" and suddenly developed an overriding obsession with running away to Greenland. So he did. It took him eight years to get there.

Kpomassie comes across as a really interesting person. His oddly persistent obsession with Greenland seems a little, well, crazy, but crazy in that weird, wonderful way that's it's good to see in the world from time to time. And he writes thoughtfully and well about his adolescent turning point, his travels, and the people and culture he found in Greenland when he got there. Both Togo and Greenland being equally unfamiliar to me, I found his descriptions of both equally fascinating, and very much enjoyed the entire account. Well, OK, maybe not so much the graphic descriptions of butchering animals, including dogs. But even that was sort of interesting, in its own gruesome way. ( )
2 vote bragan | Oct 18, 2016 |
"I...began dreaming of eternal cold", April 12, 2016

This review is from: An African in Greenland (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Fascinating travel book, in which the reader encounters two vastly different societies. The author describes his young life in Togo, culminating in a visit to a - wonderfully described - python priestess, with all her voodoo paraphernalia.
Inspired by a book on the Eskimos, which he finds on the bookshelf of the local mission, he determines to go to Greenland; the next section of the book explains his lengthy journey across Europe, and the helpful people he met en route. Some years on, he finds himself in S Greenland, and here begins the main part of the tale, as he makes his way from the relatively westernized Julianehab to the north. Life becomes increasingly brutal, dirty and harsh as he enters the real Greenlandic world.

Highly readable and full of interesting facts: the criminal system; Arctic 'madness'; the dogs - who live a hard life, and can turn on humans and kill, and who are another source of food for the Greenlanders. The author compares the native beliefs in spirits have a parallel with those in Africa.
And, above all, vivid descriptions of the place, such as his first experience of the Northern Lights:
"Suddenly looking up, I saw long white streaks whirling in the wind above my head. It was like the radiance of some invisible hearth, from which dazzling light rays shot out, streamed into space, and spread to form a great deep-folded phosphorescent curtain which moved and shimmered, turning rapidly from white to yellow, from pink to red...the wind shook it gently like an immense transparent drapery ...Its movements were now regular as an ocean swell, now hurried, jerky, leaping and tumbling like a kite."

Great read. ( )
  starbox | Apr 12, 2016 |
My thoughts:
• I enjoy armchair travelling and a good travelogue especially to places I have not yet visited. This was an intriguing read as I learned about Togo and Greenland.
• Written with charm and wit, the author’s personality shines through and as your reader you understand Kpomassie’s charisma and ability to easily integrate himself into a society/culture to his own.
• While the author does not spend much time talking about Togo (except for the events that led to his fascination with Greenland) I certainly became interested to learn and read more about Togo.
• The author demonstrated an ability to quickly learn new languages as he travels across African and Europe to get to his goal Greenland.
• I appreciated how the author keenly observes the Inuit and their culture and felt at ease no matter the customs.
• While reading with my modern American eyes, I know wondered how certain customs/traditions developed and how I would adapt to them. But it easily becomes obvious that time and environment influences how a person lives and you have to use the resources at hand. I did not find the Inuit diet appetizing or appealing but when you live in an area without arable land ant timber then the food source has to come from mostly from the sea and those few than animals that can survive and it made sense to eat most of this raw.
• I did wonder why all of the coffee drinking and how did this become a big part of their culture. Every household had a pot of coffee going for themselves and guests.
• While I would have liked a little less detail regarding the fishing/hunting adventures, this is activity is so important to the survival of life in Greenland that doing this help helps determine if you eat and have warm clothing, and have something to barter with for other supplies.
• Once I finished reading I wondered how the author fared after his Greenland adventure and what lessons he had learned that we would apply to life wherever he landed. ( )
1 vote bookmuse56 | Aug 7, 2014 |
When I started this book, I was rather afraid that it would turn out to do nothing more than what it says on the tin. The idea of someone from Western Africa who is curious to see the Arctic is interesting and surprising, but it didn't seem like enough to sustain a whole book. Indeed, the opening chapters, where Kpomassie describes how, as a boy in Togo, he came up with the idea of going to Greenland, struck me as disappointingly close to pastiche Things fall apart. But I'm glad I didn't stop there: The point of the book only really becomes clear when he gets to Greenland and starts writing about the Greenlanders: it's not a book about "an African in Greenland", but a book about Inuit culture in Greenland in the 1960s from the point of view of an observer who happens to be an African. The Greenlanders, not Kpomassie, are at the centre of the book.

It seems to be not so much his African origin as Kpomassie's personality and his willingness to live with the Inuit villagers on their own terms and share their poverty that define the way the book works, and allow him to make such interesting observations about their way of life. He never suggests that a shared experience of colonialism gives him a special bond with Inuit culture (indeed, at one point a Greenlander tells him that he read something about "someone from your country" and shows him a photograph of General de Gaulle).

Whenever I read something about the Arctic, I'm reminded that this is not a part of the world for squeamish vegetarians. How could it be? But Kpomassie goes further than most. We get far more details of Inuit diet and methods of food preparation than even the most hardened meat-eaters are likely to be comfortable with.

Curiously, this seems to be a book that is readily available in just about any language other than the original French, where the 1981 edition has apparently never been reprinted and is now scarce and expensive. I failed to find a copy for a sensible price and had to read it in the English translation, which has the merit of being done by the late James Kirkup, one of the few modern poets to have had the honour of seeing his work discussed in Britain's highest critical forum, the Old Bailey. Interesting that the US publisher included a short bio of Al Alvarez, another distinguished British poet, who wrote the introduction, but said nothing about Kirkup, who had a much bigger role in the book. It's almost as though they think that readers might be put off by mention of Whitehouse v. Lemon... ( )
  thorold | Jun 2, 2014 |
Togo. There's more of Greenland than of Togo, but Kpomassie's childhood and early adolescence provide the background for this tale. It's an adventure narrative, though not an impulsive one. Rather, it's a testament to a man who had a goal and slogged his way toward it over a number of years. Read with Gretel Ehrlich's [b:This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland|112118|This Cold Heaven Seven Seasons in Greenland|Gretel Ehrlich|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320502341s/112118.jpg|107964] for two views of sometimes-similar experiences. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0940322889, Paperback)

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book about Greenland—and knew that he must go there. Working his way north over nearly a decade, Kpomassie finally arrived in the country of his dreams. This brilliantly observed and superbly entertaining record of his adventures among the Inuit is a testament both to the wonderful strangeness of the human species and to the surprising sympathies that bind us all.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:21 -0400)

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