Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie: from Togo to Greenland

From the sublime to the ridiculous: a man from Togo visits Greenland, the land of his dreams.

You wouldn’t imagine there would be many similarities between life in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, Greenland. Thanks to An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie from the West-African Togolese Republic, I discovered that there are.

This is based on the life story and journey of a young Togoan man who dreams at an early age of visiting the strange and exotic land of Greenland. After running away from his duties and a string of lucky breaks working hard in the right places, his dream comes true. The book gives a really interesting insight into traditional life in an African country, with snakes, medicine women and polygamy, then into traditional life in Greenland, with hunting, large amounts of whale blubber, alcoholism, permissiveness (traditional or not?) and an unexpected amount of correlation between the two ways of life. Fascinating.

Weird and wonderful book connections

I often notice strange and unexpected connections between the book I’ve just read and the one I’m reading now. The book I read before this one was The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, about an American couple travelling in North Africa. There isn’t much connection between the two books, unless you count the fact that both The Sheltering Sky and An African in Greenland are about travels in a foreign land, both beginning somewhere in French-speaking Africa (Algeria and Togo). There is also a passage in this book where the author describes a huge moon rising low over a frozen sea where he specifically says it reminds him of the desert and even before he made that comparison, it was triggering memories of descriptions in The Sheltering Sky of the moon over the desert. In addition to that, the descriptions of unappetising food are similar, though Greenland takes it to a whole new level of disgusting.

Many reviews I have seen on Goodreads comment on how ungrateful Kpomassie seemed for the food and lodgings provided to him by his hosts in Greenland. However, that was not the impression I got. If you come from a culture of hospitality where it is normal to invite visitors to share what you have, however little that may be, then it is also normal to accept hospitality. In Greenland, he seems to have been accepted as a visitor without any problem. Perhaps extremes of temperature make a culture more likely to take a stranger in, whether to protect them from scorching sun and dangerous wild animals or from freezing to death.

Where is the author now?

As I was wondering what happened to Kpomassie after his trip to Greenland had finished, I was searching the internet and discovered a blog post by a journalist who visited him in Paris and corresponded with him. He now lives in France, but was later able to travel back to both Greenland and Togo. Update 2 March 2022: At the grand old age of 81 he is planning to leave France and spend the rest of his life in Greenland. The Guardian published an excellent interview with him which is well worth a read.

Final verdict: Not the best travel book I’ve ever read, but interesting nevertheless.

Surprise new translation

While scrolling The Guardian at the weekend at the end of February 2022, I was astounded to see a review of An African in Greenland, as I read it so long ago. A new translation by James Kirkup has appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic, presumably due to the current level of interest in reading books in translation and books by people of colour. This particular book also has bonus points for ticking the boxes for those difficult-to-find countries Togo and Greenland for ‘reading the world’ readers, which is why I read it in the first place.