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‘African in Greenland’ Author Tété-Michel Kpomassie Tells of His Historic Journey

Tété-Michel Kpomassie's Journey to Greenland
By: John Wisniewski | |Tété-Michel Kpomassie's Journey to Greenland | Image: ©Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Tété-Michel Kpomassie Discusses His Epic Journey of a Lifetime from Togo to Greenland

John Wisniewski recently interviewed Tete-Michel Kpomassie, author of the book ‘African in Greenland’ for Cultured Focus. Kpomassie describes his remarkable journey from his native Togo to Greenland and the numerous adventures he experienced along the way. He shares stories of being welcomed into Inuit communities, learning about their culture, and even being adopted into one. His incredible story is one that will stay with readers for years to come. Learn more below.

Early Beginnings Tété-Michel Kpomassie

1. When did you begin writing, Tete?

It is difficult to remember exactly when I began writing. I think it was by the age of 14 when I was awarded my CEPE (Certificat D’études Primaires Élémentaires) diploma, the basic school-leaving qualification showing that I had successfully completed my six years of formal primary schooling. I was an avid reader spending all the money I made selling mats made from coconut fibers on books. My father noticed that I was very studious and had a good comprehension of French. In sharing out the domestic work at home, he entrusted me with the task of writing his and the family letters, an onerous charge involving an amount of unceasing effort. Usually in the evening after dinner, my father would tell me in our Mina language what he wanted to say in his correspondence. I would memorize every detail of his verbal message and present him the following day my written version in French, which he would carefully read, comment, sometimes oblige me to make corrections or a new version before just signing the message and sending it by the postal system.

Being my father’s confident and ghostwriter was a sacred trust in me and I conscientiously accomplished that enormous responsibility in the solitude of my hut during a great part of the night, groping for the right words in my French dictionary (there were no French-Mina nor Mina-French dictionaries) and racking my brains to construct in a foreign language the turns of phrases the reader in the village (who is not the addressee but a cousin who will translate the letter to his own father or mother) would easily interpret in Mina. For the oddest thing was that my letters sent to the village to family members who knew nothing about French had to be translated into Mina again because we were not taught to write in our own language, which was severely prohibited by the educational establishments and we were flogged whenever we were caught speaking it in the schoolyard or in the classrooms, a tyrannical prerogative the white colonizers laid out to impose their own language and religion. Sure, my father could read directly in French the replies he received, but most of the population could not, and this shows the grotesque aspect and the tyranny of such a situation. However, I became an appreciated letter-writer and interpreter in the family. This activity soon went beyond letter writing as I tried my hand describing the surroundings and conditions in which we lived. Needless to say, that my writing skill improved significantly in Greenland where I scrupulously kept a diary on the strength of rigorous entries every day at all costs. But it was not until my return to Togo and my first non-stop two-year lecture tour of sixteen countries in Western and Equatorial Africa that, back to France, I began writing my book “An African in Greenland” in the evenings, keeping my daytime job at a Japanese company in Paris.

2. Any favorite writers?

As a self-educated person, I naturally have many favorite writers. However, I have a clear preference for Gustave Flaubert not only for the fluency and musicality of his laboriously revised phrases and wonderful style, but also for his beliefs and ideals and the following motto encapsulating his art of writing or technique: “Ce ne sont pas les perles qui font le collier, mais le fil” (It is not the pearls that make the necklace, but the string), meaning that the thread in a narration or the skillful way to smoothly connect two topics or sections to each other in a narrative far surpasses the flowery, but dissonant descriptions lacking links between them.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie in front of the ice  fjord if Ilulissat, 2007 © Sophie Cauvin
Tété-Michel Kpomassie in front of the ice fjord if Ilulissat, 2007 | Image: © Sophie Cauvin

Journey to Greenland

3. What inspired you to write “An African in Greenland”?

My Greenland diary contained the detailed descriptions of all the events that I encountered and the countless splendors that I observed such as the northern lights, the long period of midnight sun and its opposed endless polar night, ice fishing, and dog sledding in the vast white nature with its breathtaking but frozen and inhospitable landscape. The Inuit people have made their home by dint of superhuman effort, heroic adaptation, and uncommon perseverance, which is inconceivable for my fellow countrymen living in the leisurely tropics. My notebooks are also full of precise information on my hosts and their hearty hospitality. I meticulously noted everything they shared with me including food, clothes, friendship and love. I could only express my full gratitude by writing a book describing with honesty and sincerity their generous nature, their wonderful country, and their material and spiritual life. I was astounded myself by my audacity to be standing there among them, while still seeking relentlessly their soul in the eternal snows, constantly trying to understand the correct meaning of each word they spoke to me. Before my trip, I had read that the Greenlandic word “Qallunaaq”, known as Kabloona or Kabloonak elsewhere in the Arctic, means “white man”, but it was also applied to an African like me — so incorrectly translated by the white explorers. I noted the differences between my hosts culture and mine, but also the similarities. One of the latter being our common animism, which religions created in the desert came to destroy (both in the rain forest and in the Arctic), a consequence of our shared destiny as fellow colonized peoples. Some distressing situations I came across in Africa and Greenland derived from the resulting deep afflicted cultural malaise. Furthermore, I felt that after the shame of slavery and colonization, we Africans must travel to see and judge the world with our own criterion. My duty was to initiate as an African storyteller of the Arctic, thus enabling both Africans and the rest of the world to see Greenland through other eyes than the ‘Westerners’. The above motivations inspired me to write “An African in Greenland".

été-Michel Kpomassie - With my former host and friend Josef Løvstrøm at Qasigiannguit, 1988
Tété-Michel Kpomassie - With my former host and friend Josef Løvstrøm at Qasigiannguit, 1988| ©Tété-Michel Kpomassie

4. Could you tell us about your early life? What was it like growing up in Africa?

I grew up in an atmosphere of violent cultural shock. The missionaries trying to convert my father asked him to break up with seven of his eight wives and marry one in a Christian ceremony, a terrifying selection which would lead to the sacking of our other mothers. This cynical proposal, which traumatized the whole family. This caused our father particular alarm because of his fear to make enemies in the villages whose women would be the thrown out. He asked the missionaries what would happen to the children whose mothers he would abandon, but it appeared that was not the church’s business. For us children, it was just incomprehensible that the missionaries, those inveterate bachelors we were compelled to be called “fathers” (who had never met with the responsibilities of conjugal bonds and fatherly obligations) could be entitled to order our respected father. His unwavering resistance to change his beliefs molded my own destiny. If he had converted to Christianity, he would not have taken me to the snake cult’s priestess, whose objective about me sprang up my impulse to flee to the treeless and snake-free Greenland. My early life was also influenced by the disbelief of my grandfather towards Christianity. He was shocked by the recitation “Give us today our daily bread… “, which for him was a lie because in our culture we feed our gods by offering them the first crops and other animal sacrifices — an ancestral custom inciting us to cultivate our fields. Grandfather would add a warning against laziness — “If Mawu (God) gives me my daily bread, tell me what there is left to do?” This sacred tradition enabled our forefathers to nourish not only the gods, but their own families made up of healthy and strong young men and women. The gluttonous European kings and emperors came to steal them by the million and sold them as slaves in the Americas, West Indies, and in the Caribbean during a never-ending four hundred years. My grandfather’s words still came to mind many years later, when I learnt that Hans Egede (the first Danish-Norwegian pastor who arrived in Greenland in 1721 and translated the bible could not find in Kalaallisut), the Inuit language spoken in the ice-covered Greenland that grows no crops, an equivalent for “bread”. He translated it using the word “food”, which the indigenous naturally replaced with “seal“. This was discreditable, perverted and disparaging for people who have been feeding themselves for centuries before the coming of the white preacher. As I was to discover in Greenland throughout my first stay which lasted 18 months, nobody gives you a seal even at minus 40 degrees. You have to work very hard for it. My host in the village of Oqaatsut (Rodebay), who came from hunting empty-handed that whole winter was reduced to slaughter his emaciated dogs to feed his starving family. Some other destitute Greenlanders simply lived on allowances from the Danish government, despite the pastor’s fine recitation. In Togo, just as our Mina language was prohibited in both the state-run and missionaries’ schools, our traditional names were banned in the schoolyards and in the classrooms. We could not be admitted to any school unless we were saddled with Christian names. My father had to look up in a calendar and distribute to us outlandish names our own mothers could not pronounce properly. As I was called differently at home and at school, it took me some time to realize that the teacher was speaking to me. When the missionaries, who persisted on converting my father heard that he gave me the name Michel (without being baptized), they made me purchase an image of Saint Michel knocking down the Dragon and said that he will henceforth be my guardian angel. I naively identified myself with that creature until I realized that the Dragon he was knocking down represented my father sticking to his unshakable animism. I can’t say that from then on, I lost the Christian faith, which anyway I have never had. But soon I noticed that, while we are burden with Christian names and my country is covered by Christian and other foreign religious places of worship, no white man is called Koffi and not a single Vaudou temple exists in any of the countries I travelled in Europe and that statement of fact has a whiff of insolent racism. Today, as in retaliation for the missionaries and the settlers, arrogant total banishment of our traditional given names, President Gnassingbé Eyadema’s government of independent Togo adopted a “politique de l’authenticité “(policy of authenticity) pressing for “Retour Aux Racines Africaines” (return to African roots) and abolishing Christian names in all documents including passports and identity cards. Yet, I decided against that law to keep on the cover of my book my two given names in a compound form including the traditional Mina name first, followed by the borrowed Christian name — without knowing why that defiance. Perhaps having traveled a lot, my openness to the new cultures I came in contact with allowed me to be more tolerant than the missionaries. But I still bear the settlers a final grudge. On the first identity card I got at the age of 16, my nationality was “Sujet Français” (French subject) and anyone of my family living in the then British Togoland (now part of Ghana), was a “British subject”. But I emancipated myself in my early life from the twin stranglehold of tradition and the occupier. I conquered my freedom and became the first and only African to travel the world when I embarked on my crazy individual polar adventure from Togo to Greenland, where I arrived eight years later at the age of 24.

Image Gallery Detailing Travels of Tété-Michel Kpomassie | ©Tété-Michel Kpomassie

5. Will you write another book?

I would precisely like to write another book about my childhood and pay tribute to my father and our eight mothers who instilled a sense of rightness in us the children. We were respectful of nature and of our elders. None of us became a bad boy or girl. We were raised with the simple rules of our rain forest culture, the age-old traditions that religions created in the desert came to destroy.

6. Any future plans and projects?

My plans and projects are the same since my early life. I am preparing my fifth individual journey to Greenland to settle there. I should have left in October 2022 but was victim of a road accident in a town near Paris. I am currently waiting for my complete recovery. It is just odd that an accident caused by a snake in a cocoanut plantation prompted my first trip to Greenland and I am now blockaded by an accident cause by a car in France.

For more information on Tété-Michel Kpomassie, read more on Amazon.


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