The Strangest Travel Book Ever Written
An African in Greenland
by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
(Translated from the French by James Kirkup)
New York Review Books; 306 pp. $12.95
Our dinner guest a few weeks ago got to talking about the thing we always get to talking about with dinner guests, The State of The Culture. He must have been drinking from the well of Evolutionary Biology, because that is the angle he came at it from. There are (he claimed) tropical cultures and arctic cultures, with intermediate gradations. Human sexual bonding in pure-tropical cultures is of the "grazing" variety: a man hooks up with a woman, impregnates her, then wanders off and repeats the performance with another woman. The women don't mind the looseness of their attachments, because in tropical circumstances food is easy to get, and a woman can raise children without much dependence on men. There are low levels of sexual jealousy, and "low-investment" parenting on the part of males. These males are, as the Evol-Bio jargon goes, "cads" rather than "dads." In pure-arctic cultures, by contrast, food can only be got by sustained arduous exertions. The species can only survive in an arctic climate by sticking doggedly together in tight kinship groups, practicing strict monogamy and high-investment parenting.
We in the modern West (our dinner guest argued on) are mostly people with arctic genes trying to adjust to a tropical culture. Not that our climate has changed in a tropical direction, but we have simulated a tropical climate by inventing equality of opportunity and the welfare state, in which environment — just as in pre-modern Micronesia or equatorial Africa — women don't really need to have men around in order to raise kids. Instead of food dropping from the trees, it drops from all those well-paid jobs that women now have equal access to — or if all else fails, from the welfare office. All our current social problems flow from this mismatch between our genetic endowment and the environment we have created.
It all sounded pretty plausible as our dinner guest said it, although, having taken in several large glasses of vin de table, I couldn't concentrate well enough to think the thing through at the time, to see if this cute little theory really holds water. The main effect this discourse had on me, in fact, was to remind me of a book I heard about some years ago, and had always intended to read. The way these things happen, during an idle moment at the keyboard a day or two later, that book came back to mind. I logged on to Abebooks and ordered a copy. The book duly arrived, and I have just finished reading it.
The book is titled An African in Greenland. Written about 25 years ago, it is the first-person account of a journey undertaken by the author, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, from his home village in West Africa to Upernavik in northern Greenland. Kpomassie's part of Africa is francophone — nowadays the nation of Togo — so the book was written first in French, then translated into English by James Kirkup in 1983. (And that 1983 English edition, if you get it, comes with an very silly preface, packed with "post-colonialist" cant, by some vaporing French academic. This is not representative of the book. If you get that edition, you should rip out the stupid preface and stomp on it.) The latest edition of Kirkup's translation, still widely available, was published by the New York Review of Books in 2001.* The author seems to have been born around 1941; the period covered by the book is roughly 1957-68.
Kpomassie was raised in one of the deeply conservative tribal societies bordering the Gulf of Guinea. (His tribe, he tells us, was the Watyi.) In the late 1950s, when the story begins, these people were well acquainted with the modern world, but had embraced only its utilitarian aspects. Kpomassie's father, for example, worked as an electrician, but had five wives. The family scorned Christianity, preferring the ancient animism of their region. After Kpomassie had an unpleasant encounter with a snake, his family elders decided that he was destined to become a priest in a local snake cult. This would involve living in the deep jungle among pythons. Kpomassie was not keen on the idea. At just this time, at a bookstore in the nearest city, he happened to see Dr. Robert Gessain's book The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska. Kpomassie was seized with the idea that he should go and live among these folk. By a sustained effort of will, and through many difficulties — it took him six years just to work his way to Europe, two more to get to Greenland — he eventually did so.
It is, as it sounds, the strangest travel book ever written. One can only imagine how the appearance of this tall, very black young African struck the Eskimos of Greenland's tiny, isolated settlements. Kpomassie carries the whole thing off brilliantly. Open-minded, self-assured, adaptable, acutely observant, and obviously very personable, he is the perfect guide to the Eskimos and what was left of their culture in the mid-1960s. There is no trace of cultural condescension in him. He has a sort of prelapsarian innocence that gives the book great charm. With that facility for languages that tribal peoples often have, he learned French, German, Danish (Greenland was a Danish colony at the time) and Eskimo. He seems to have been almost entirely self-educated, keeping up correspondence courses while working his way along the West African coast. The dust jacket says that in 1983 he was employed by a Japanese electronics firm in Paris. I have no knowledge of his current whereabouts.
But what about The State Of The Culture? Here you surely have what must be the definitive test of my dinner guest's thesis about arctic versus tropical genetic endowments. Well, on the evidence of Kpomassie's book, the thesis is total nonsense. In the matter of sexual morality, for example, the Watyi were not a particularly prudish people, but Kpomassie was shocked by the casual promiscuity of Greenland.
Gerhart and I went to visit Lydia. [These people with Danish names are all Eskimos, by the way.] "Assavakit!" (I love you) she cried when she greeted me. Deeply moved, I stroked her cheek. As we were leaving, she told me: "Come back with Adam this evening at seven." … That evening we refused all other invitations. When we got to Lydia's room a little earlier than expected, we saw Karl, Adam's brother, lying naked in the bed beside Lydia! They were drinking beer and laughing. Seeing them lying there side by side, I couldn't help feeling upset … To my astonishment, she didn't understand why I was angry … In Greenland, jealousy is frowned upon … Greenland morality was beginning to disgust me.
The problem is, that these casual morals might have nothing to do with traditional Eskimo culture. All these Eskimos were Danish citizens, and enjoyed the benefits of a typically generous Scandinavian welfare state. Nobody in southern Greenland seemed to do much work, and practically nobody was sober after mid-morning.
Apart from Eric … and one or two others who often left the village on fishing expeditions, none of the people I met seemed to have any definite job. Gerhart trailed me around with him day and night and seemed to do nothing. [Karl] gave me the impression of being a parasite living off his brothers … As for Hans, who supposedly worked at the naval dockyard, not once since my arrival had he gone to work. Yet Paulina was always offering coffee and drinks to visitors. How did she get the money? Well, let's face it: a lot of able-bodied Greenlanders simply live on allowances from the Danish government.
Why is this? Children are sent to school but are not taught anything about their traditional activities. Even worse, their way of life is disparaged to their faces … When they grow up, they can't even paddle a kayak. That's how things are for the Greenlanders on the southern coast. "But are there still places with seal hunters and huskies, sledges and kayaks?" I asked. "Avannamût!" (You must go further north!)
So further north Kpomassie goes. There he does indeed find the old way of life still in some kind of existence, and goes hunting for whale, seal, and blue shark, in the traditional style, passing comments on the differences between whale hunting in the arctic and lion hunting on the African plains — Kpomassie must surely be the only person that has ever been qualified to make such comparisons. He finds the sexual morals of the north no stricter than those of the south, though. At the northernmost of his residences, a traditional Eskimo turf house, he slept together with all his host's family in a single bed, for warmth. The family included a girl of twenty who was eight months pregnant. She claimed not to know who the father was, but "village gossip alleged it was her own father."
Kpomassie speaks plainly about the dirt and squalor of Eskimo life, and leaves one with the definite impression that a high level of tolerance for the disgusting is essential for anyone who wishes to dwell among these people.
All the filth of Christianshåb was suddenly exposed by the sun's return and the thaw. Snow melted on the slopes, the street became a river of mud, and innumerable streams riddled the ash-grey earth and brought to light piles of old bottles and cans, dog shit, household waste, and rotten potatoes. All the garbage which cold and snow had preserved — now swollen with melted water, rotting fast and buzzing with clouds of flies … come out to haunt us like a bad conscience. Outside the doors and under the foundations, the houses were repulsively filthy … A sickening stench hung everywhere. The dogs, some of them now moulting, slunk squalidly round the village.
Those dogs, by the way, are by no means the loyal, obedient huskies of arctic legend. They will kill and eat a human child if the opportunity presents itself, and even adults — especially drunken ones, with which Greenland is well supplied — provide an occasional meal. Faut de mieux, they kill and eat each other. This is all part of the cycle of life up north: the Eskimos use their dogs for food when other supplies run out, and Kpomassie gives detailed instructions on the preparation of a husky for the table. Dog flesh is generally eaten raw.
For all the disgust, though, Kpomassie falls deeply in love with the Eskimos and their land, thereby accomplishing what must surely be the most astounding act of cultural assimilation in all of human history.
More than once, the previous winter, I had driven a dog-sled team alone, perched on my load of frozen fish, often through starry nights swept by the aurora borealis. In those moments of intense cold, with my eyes focused on the track beaten smooth by sleds and my body full of a sense of sweet well-being, I had never missed my native Africa, for the poetry of movement on the ice froze up the muggy heat of my native tropics. I had adapted so well to Greenland that I believed nothing could stop me spending the rest of my days there.
An African in Greenland is a fascinating book, and I could write about it all day. It would, of course, be more economical of your time to just get a copy and read it for yourself, which I urge you to do.
Though it tends to explode my dinner guest's glib little thesis, Kpomassie's book speaks to The State Of The Culture none the less. Reading it, I found myself thinking of my own background, in a way I never quite had before. Born a few years after Kpomassie and raised in an English country town, I am one of the last generation of Westerners to have experienced a culture with strong traditional values. The things I was taught as a child — the hymns and songs and poems, the Latin and geometry and grammar, the street games and rhymes and customs, respect for the Crown, the Church, the Nation, the School, my elders — were much closer to the things my great-grandparents were taught, than they were to anything an English child born twenty years after me would have learned.
Kpomassie's upbringing was even more infused with tradition than mine. The words "tradition," "traditional," "custom," and "customary" occur so often when he is writing about his own African culture, in fact, that you start to notice it.
… Each of the wives was periodically omitted … because of our father's rigorous observance of certain traditional prohibitions …
I was the youngest of the three, so according to custom I was walking in front …
Even twins are not exempt from this rule in our traditionalist families …
Custom did not lay down the position that [the dog] should occupy on that narrow path, so he often amused himself by scampering off …
They didn't dare take me to the hospital, either because it didn't occur to them or because tradition dictated otherwise …
At nightfall my father's first wife whom I addressed according to tradition by the respectful title of Nagan …
My upbringing wasn't as tradition-bound as Kpomassie's, but by the time I reached any kind of social awareness I knew that a question addressed to an adult and beginning with the words "Why should I have to …?" was most likely to be met with a glance of angry puzzlement and the response: "Because that's the way it's done!"
For example: In movie theaters in England in the 1950s, the National Anthem was always played at the end of the movie. Everybody stood up and stayed at attention out of respect to the Monarch until the anthem was over. (There was in fact, by the early 1960s, an unseemly scramble for the exits as the movie came to an end, to avoid having to stand through the Anthem. That only strengthens my point, though; if you hadn't made it out of the theater when the Anthem started, you had to freeze to attention till it was over.)
I can't even imagine people standing still for the National Anthem in a movie theater nowadays — not even in the U.S.A., where patriotism is still strong. In England? Forget it! Yet that's the way we were, just forty years ago. As I said, in the matter of tradition and custom, English people of my generation were closer to their great-grandparents than they would be to their own children.
And the break-up of the whole thing was of course my generation's fault. When we reached the age at which we knew everything, at which our minds had penetrated all the way through the deepest mysteries of the universe — which is to say, round about age sixteen — we came to find all that tradition and custom unbearably irksome. We ostentatiously remained seated during the post-movie National Anthem, to much disgust, and sometimes abuse, from older members of the audience. None of that fuddy-duddy hide-bound old nonsense for us! I suppose that Kpomassie's misgivings about his predestined career as a snake-cult priest were akin, in some way, to our distaste for the customary ways of midcentury English society.
In his book, Kpomassie draws a melancholy picture of a deserted Eskimo village. It had dawned on the inhabitants one day that they could swap their traditional, very arduous, hunting lifestyle for the much easier fishing-and-welfare ways of the nearby town, so they all decamped. I guess the psychology at work there was similar in some way to Kpomassie's balking at becoming a snake-cult priest, to my staying seated through "God Save the Queen."
Flipping through some internet sites to see what has happened to the Greenland Eskimos in the 30-odd years since Kpomassie left them, I find no good news.
Many of the Eskimo (Inuit) people survive by hunting and fishing and are struggling as fish stocks become depleted. [Greenland's] population is only 56,000. Inhabitants face severe social problems, notably unemployment, alcoholism and rates of AIDS infection.
— The BBC News web site
You could argue that even this is for the best. The traditional Eskimo life was awfully hard, especially on the old. (The ice floe business you have heard about is not quite true, but something similar went on. Kpomassie is very eloquent about the reverence given to old people in his African tribe, as against the "useless mouths" attitude that seems to have prevailed among the Eskimos.)
I doubt things are going much better with the traditional West African society Kpomassie was raised in. My guess is that it has been smashed to pieces by combined assaults from the international-aid bureaucracies, the rapacity of French industrialists and politicians, and misrule by Sorbonne-educated African intellectuals, steeped — like all modern intellectuals — in a deep contempt and loathing for ordinary people, for their traditions and customs and folkways, their beliefs and attitudes, their tastes and preferences, their religion and ethnic loyalties.
What happened to the Eskimos and the Watyi has also happened to us in some degree. My kids don't play the street games we used to play (some of which, according to Peter and Fiona Opie's classic The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, go back to Roman times), because they are too busy on the computer. Reverence for the Flag, the Country, the Church, the School, the Family? But these are just human institutions, staffed by ordinary fallible human beings, who frequently behave in ridiculous ways. What's to revere? We seem to have actually lost some conceptual power, the power to see past individual persons to the institutions they represent. Perhaps this is the final triumph of individualism.
There is, of course, a case to be made for this great transformation. Quite possibly we, if not the Eskimos and Watyi, have gained more than we have lost. Those old traditional folkways were not all benign. (Kpomassie hints at human sacrifice — not among his own people, but in a neighboring tribe.) To an intelligent and imaginative young person — me, Kpomassie, no doubt many Eskimos — the weight of custom and tradition can be intolerably suffocating, the urge to kick against it, or escape from it, irresistible.
Still, when we escaped from all that, we at least understood that we had lost something, and this is a thing that the following generations do not know. Why should I have to …? No reason, really, none that stands up to rigorous logical scrutiny. So don't, if you don't feel like it. Those who know about and care about nothing at all that is old, traditional or customary are adrift and aimless in a blank, nihilistic, hedonistic world, in which nothing matters much because everything is permitted. How I pity them!
Is modern Western culture really anything more than just a better-furnished version of the booze-sodden, AIDS-addled, traditionless, pointless existence of the modern Greenlanders? I don't know, I just wonder. I am sure that Tété-Michel Kpomassie, wherever he is, wonders the same thing. So, probably, do a few Eskimos. What a wonderful book, to make a person think so much!
* An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie; The New York Review of Books, 432 pages, $12.95.