Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in the African country of Togo when he discovered a picture book about Greenland. The book showed stunning pictures of icebergs, snowcapped mountains and icy plains — Instantly he knew that he had to go there. At this point he did not know that snow and ice were cold! But it was the start of the unlikely story of ‘An African In Greenland’!
The First African in Greenland
Kpomassie was born in 1941, in Togo, and received only six years of elementary education. His father, a prominent man in the village, had eight wives and 26 children. When he was a young man, he was collecting coconuts in the jungle when he was surprised by a python, and got bitten. His father believed that his resulting illness could only be cured by consulting the priestess of the python cult, deep in the forest, and so he was taken, through one long night, into the heart of the snake-infested cult. The cure worked, but the priestess required a payment – Kpomassie would need to be initiated into the snake cult. This would require living for the next seven years in the jungle, among the snakes.
It was at this time, recovering from his illness and waiting to be taken back to the jungle, that Kpomassie found a children’s book at the local Jesuit library about Greenland. Not only did this strange country have no snakes, but it had no trees in which they might hide. He fell immediately in love with the country and the idea of its native hunters. As soon as he was well, he ran away from home, with the sole idea of somehow reaching Greenland.
Kpomassie escaped Togo and his tribe and in over a decade time he worked his way North through Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mauritania, Paris, Copenhagen, never staying in one place more than six months. All the while, he taught himself languages through correspondence courses and made an endless number of friends through his skills as a storyteller and natural charm.
More than ten years after his departure, in the mid-1960s he found a boat to Greenland. Shortly after he arrived in the country of his dreams – and the world’s biggest island – Greenland.
And he found out – to his surprise – that it’s absolutely freezing!
In his brilliant book ‘An African in Greenland’ Kpomassie entertainingly records his adventures among the Inuit. The book is the ultimate exotic mix—an adventure story that begins in Togo, a narrow strip of a country, formerly a French colony, sandwiched between Benin and Ghana, and ends in Upernavik, way north of the Arctic Circle, on the west coast of Greenland.
It depicts wonderfully his encounter with the native Kalaallit population, which is very different but in many ways very similar in its lifestyle to the tribal society of Togo.
It is a testament both to the wonderful strangeness of the human species and to the surprising sympathies that bind us all.
In 1981 Kpomassie was awarded the Prix Littéraire Francophone for An African in Greenland.
Greenlanders in Africa
Was Kpomassie the first African in Greenland….a group of 11 Greenland Inuit became the first Greenlanders in Africa. Well almost Africa. For an anthropological experiment the Inuit were sent from their freezing homes – one of the coldest places on earth – to the tropical Gran Canarian islands to see what would happen when they would encounter the best climate in the world. The resulting documentary ‘The Smile of the Sun‘ is both fun, touching and very warming. And the story is nothing less than kickass amazing. Find it here.