Translated from the French by James Kirkup
I googled Togolese writers, and the first name to pop up was that of Tété-Michel Kpomassie. The intriguing title of this book, published in France in 1981, and translated into English is 1983, meant it just begged to be picked up. Togo and Greenland seem opposite extremes, but author Tété-Michel Kpomassie was determined to make the journey to Greenland from his home in Togo after seeing a book about the frozen territory. He set off as a teenager in 1959, just before he was to be indoctrinated into a snake cult.
Perhaps now is a good time to admit that as a small child I was obsessed with huskies. I would attach my stuffed Highland Terrier toy to a length of wool and hold his reins in my hands as I perched in an armchair, willing him to whizz across the carpet, while I yelled “Mush! Mush!” The point of this anecdote being, I guess, that I can understand the fascination that the teenage Kpomassie felt for lives of the people who used to be known as Eskimos (now more accurately known as Inuit).
Kpomassie made his way slowly north, over several years, educating himself via correspondence course, and taking short-term jobs. Kpomassie’s optimism, exuberance and charisma jump off the page, and it is striking how people everywhere proved themselves willing to put him up in their homes after a moment’s acquaintance.
Greenland is massive, stretching 2.166 million km², but is currently home to only around 56,000 people. On his arrival, Kpomassie became something of a local celebrity, being welcomed into the various communities among which he stayed (and into the beds of several women!). He travelled north through the territory, experiencing brutal living conditions, in what became a sort of ethnographic study.
Still gripping the two uprights, my companion brought the sled to a graceful halt beside me, while I wobbled to my feet and dusted snow from my clothes. He didn’t even ask if I was hurt.
“Unbelievable!” he exclaimed. “How can a man fall off a sled? It’s not possible, yet you, you managed to do it. I saw you rolling down like a seal’s bladder, and I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Kpomassie demonstrated a preternatural ability to pick up languages, seeming to converse with ease wherever he went, and relays many colourful, sometimes funny, adventures, as well as a few genuinely disturbing encounters.
The locals’ diet sounds truly disgusting, as they survived on seal blubber and, in places, raw dog meat, while Kpomassie had warm clothing stitched for him out of dog fur and seal skin. (I don’t whether these traditions have persisted into the 21st century, or to what extent climate change has affected current ways of life.)
Raw fish exposed to glacial air is firm, even hard, and doesn’t smell. It is wholesome and pleasant to eat, even when crunchy with ice crystals. However, I would never eat raw fish in my own country, for in the hot climate it goes soft and limp and start to smell within two hours … As for seal blubber, that native delicacy, is is simply nauseating for a foreigner and resembles tallow. Lightly dried and yellowed by the sun, then “hung” as the Greenlanders like it, it smells rancid. And when frozen, frankly it even tastes like candle wax.
The film rights to Kpomassie’s engaging and enlightening adventures were bought some time ago. Development work commenced on a film adaptation of the memoir, but it seems that work must have slowed or stalled – though I did come across this teaser trailer from 2016: