SEARCHING FOR A CLEAN CONTACT
Being an account of the adventures of an African in Greenland.
'I am searching for a clean contact, a contact based not on superiority or inferiority but on what everybody can bring to the construction of a human society - because we don't have a human society.'
Tete-Michel Kpomassie - whose name means 'He who is not afraid of the lion' - is exploring a new frontier. He is both a synthesiser and a catalyst, bringing an African eye to an age of electronic fragmentation. He sees a new set of human possibilities in the mixing of cultures and sometimes he thinks he has a mission.
He is a tall man who seems always to be in motion but never seems to be in a hurry. He has a strong physical presence and radiates a sense of control, of order, of direction. He lives in the modern world yet carries a tribal scar on his cheek. He is a man who has wandered through space, time and cultures.
His life began in Togo but his soul was captured at an early age by thoughts of a vast white wilderness where there are no trees -Greenland. He was to travel there, return to write a book of the experiences that have changed his life, and retrace his steps back to Africa to pass on what he had discovered.
By day he works shifts as a telex operator in the Paris office of Mitsubishi, the largest trading corporation in the world, and spends his day like a robot sending indecipherable messages he cannot understand.
But at night he allows his true self to emerge as he writes with the pen of a craftsman - neat, precise handwriting, lines close together, each word and phrase carefully chosen, each page rewritten and rewritten, as many as 500 pages to get one chapter of the finished book.
He learnt his style from listening to the African storytellers whom he describes as 'persons of long experience who have mastered some mechanism of the language and the reaction of people'. This model was polished by reading Flaubert, especially Madame Bovary, his favourite book. He has an old paperback edition, its binding broken, its pages heavily underlined in pencil, and he has read it time and time again.
Intrigued by his story and full of questions, I was to spend a family weekend with him and his wife Annick from Bourgogne and their two sons Jean-Michelle (7) and little Phillipe (1) in their modern rented flat above a shopping complex in the small town of Trappe, thirty kilometres south of Paris on the fast autoroute that bisects the town.
I was to discover that he hardly sleeps at all and our conversation rarely stopped, continuing long hours into the darkness, the tape recorder on a chair between us with only coffee, cognac and the silence for company.
He tells me: 'I don't believe in a straight line way of living but in a great circle as the globe itself. We go round and we come again to our starting point. Why not! I think it must be wonderful for a very developed country to become savage again. Then it is a new kind of breath. I think everything in the world goes round.'
And as he spoke an illuminated globe spun into my mind with lines of connections spreading out across its face. We had made a clean contact.
Kpomassie was born in 1941, in Togo and spent his boyhood and youth in a traditional extended family of twenty-six brothers and sisters together with numerous wives and relations.
So life might have continued had it not been for two curious experiences that he had when he was sixteen.
One day, while climbing a tall palm in search of coconuts, he disturbed a mother python and her brood in their lofty nest. The snake chased him down the trunk, shot past him and then began climbing upwards, thus cutting off his retreat. He had no choice but to jump from a great height; luckily he broke no bones but the shock to his system took him near the edge of death.
[Photo: Python cult temple. Dave and Mary]
His father, an adept of a sect of python worshippers, who saved his life using only traditional medical means, took this experience as a serious omen and insisted that his son visit Be, the python priestess in her sacred wood. Kpomassie's extraordinary encounter with this woman, which he brings alive brilliantly in his writing, resulted in his life being pledged to the gods who had saved him and it was determined that he should receive training as a serving priest.
Then came the second twist of fate, even more telling than the first.
During his period of convalescence, Kpomassie found himself in the Evangelical Bookshop, run by missionaries in the nearby capital city of Lome. There, on the shelf, he discovered The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska by Dr Robert Gessain, and this book was to determine the course of the rest of his life.
He has written of that discovery: 'Was it the author's praise of their hospitality that triggered my longing for adventure, or was it fear of returning to the sacred forest? I can hardly remember. But when I had finished reading, one word began to resonate inside me until it filled my whole being. That sound, that word was Greenland.'
So Kpomassie ran away from home and began working his way towards Yovode, land of the whites - France. He had learnt to type through writing his father's letters and this, combined with his facility for languages, gained him employment wherever he went. He travelled by bush taxi and ship, always seasick but unperturbed, educating himself on the run: 'I decided to teach myself as this seemed to be the best answer for a wanderer like myself, and I embarked on a thorough study of all the French classics, beginning with the sixteenth century.'
It was to take him six years to get out of West Africa and another two to reach Copenhagen, his point of departure for Greenland. It was long and difficult, but his luck held. In Paris he met a man called Monsieur Jean C, now deceased, who became his adopted father and his lifeline. In Bonn, he arrived knowing no one, and ended up staying with Mme Annas, an elderly widow, and her young cousin Carola, whom he had met by chance at the railway station.
And so it was in 1965, at the age of 24, that Kpomassie set out through stormy seas and changing time zones towards his destiny on the largest island in the world. His equipment to combat the rigours of the climate was an old pair of American army boots, an overcoat with a quilted lining, two woollen pullovers, two pairs of mittens, an ancient folding camera, some paper and a little money - all squashed into a rucksack.
He was not the first African to make the trip nor the first to write about it. Kpomassie claims that that honour belongs to Olaudah Equiano, taken as a slave from Nigeria to the Americas and then made a freeman, who later visited Greenland as part of the Phipps Expedition of 1772-3.
His two-volume account of his life begins: 'I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; nor is this the only disadvantage under which they labour: it is also their misfortune, that what is uncommon is rarely, if ever believed, and what is obvious, we are apt to turn from with disgust and to charge the writer with impertinence.'
Robert Edwin Peary may be the name that appears in the history books but it was his black servant, Matthew Henson, who actually planted the American flag at the North Pole in 1909.
[Photo: Library of Congress]
In more recent times black American GIs have been stationed at Thule airbase in the far north but Kpomassie remains unique as the first man from modern Africa to make the connection.
He says: 'What is different about my book is the regard, the look. I think it is rather a new look. Without notice a man from a society which has always been observed went away to observe another society which is also observed by the same white.'
Kpomassie arrives in the south of the country to find the harsh reality behind his vision - a traditional society collapsing in the face of Danish colonialism, displaying every sign of what he calls 'the shock of two cultures who are not prepared to accept each other'.
'Young people have become drunkards because at school they are not taught to hunt like their fathers. They must face a new way of life and are educated to serve the Danish in their administrative offices. I had never seen a whole village completely drunk - that I have seen in Greenland. I was shocked.'
Here he was to learn the dietary, toilet and sexual habits of the Inuit at first hand, learning to love whale skin and seal fat, to deal with the non-stop daily flow of coffee and alcohol, to understand the sharing of wives and girlfriends.
In one surreal incident he goes to see a French movie starring Eddie Constantine - The Man in the Raincoat - which not only has Danish subtitles but has to be stopped every ten minutes to allow the projectionist to translate the conversation into Inuit.
He goes fishing for kerak, also known as 'sea wolves' for their rows of powerful teeth, and sees the Northern Lights for the first time, hanging 'like an immense transparent drapery' in the sky, lighting up the icebergs.
Leaving the south, where there are no huskies and no sledges left, he sets off in September to discover the real thing. As he journeys slowly northwards he watches the sea begin to freeze over and he is faced with the onset of six months of darkness, which can trigger off 'polar hysteria' in the sensitive.
Huskies, he discovers, are emaciated, ill-treated, neglected dogs who eat each other and human children, given the chance. When such a tragedy occurs an empty coffin is buried and the dogs are shot and thrown into the sea, so that they cannot be eaten. Dog is one dish that Kpomassie could never develop the stomach for.
With little money, totally at the mercy of his fate, Kpomassie not only survives, he thrives. He goes hunting for seals, has a fight on New Year's Eve with a local bully and, in one magical trip, takes an exhilarating dogsled ride across mountains and frozen lakes in a cold so intense that his handkerchief became like a sheet of crumpled tin.
He never reached Thule - his ultimate destination - but spent his last months living with Robert Matak, the oldest Inuit around, who lived in the last turf dwelling in Greenland, its walls covered with pages from old picture magazines. In this place, so like an African hut, amidst a blizzard of images from the world's press, Kpomassie decided that, instead of pushing onwards, he must return to become a storyteller to his own people, to tell of the things he had seen and experienced.
His realisation: 'Greenland was for me as a cold Africa. I didn't actually change my milieu, it was only the climate that changed. The same starvation, the same history and the same struggle to survive and probably the same future.'
Back in Trappes we watched the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday night and part of Dallas which Michel told me his half-brother, training as an engineer in Rumania, also watches. Earlier that day we had visited the hypermarket for supplies and watched Musical Youth on the in-store TV. In the kitchen, over the washing up, we listen to Culture Club on miniature Japanese speakers, perched on the fridge.
He believes that life comes from adversity. He is driven by an idea, literally pushed towards his aim. He doesn't complain, he adapts. He thinks idealism is false and so is our Western version of history. He resents deeply the fact that his ancestors submitted to slavery yet he recognises that new generations in Europe feel either ashamed or detached from their colonial past and wish to make for that clean contact too.
He is angry but his anger is tempered with understanding experience and a genuine desire to communicate. He tells me, 'I saw a programme made by a Brazilian who was convinced that the future of the world will be a great brassage-a melting of culture and people. Maybe I think that I have started making my experience before others.
'I always find beautiful a culture which is no longer pure because it gives many possibilities to go into many directions, like a tree with various roots.' He sees the need to build a new kind of society on a more human scale in order to have more contact with nature.
If one single cause could be picked out as firing his urge to return to Africa it must be the questions he was asked by the Greenlandic children, which he returned to time and again in our conversation.
'They were looking at a whole continent through me and I felt I didn't have the answers for all their questions,' he says.
Since he finished writing the book in 1979 he has made two long journeys to Africa - the first for two years, visiting fifteen countries, the second for three months, visiting twelve.
He travelled by taxibus and spoke at high schools, universities and cultural centres. His message to the African youth: you can do something for yourselves without help from the government.
He urges them to try to do the same as him, in other ways, in order 'to get rid of the moral domination we are still living with and to give more perspective to future generations. Many young Africans think it is given only to the white people to travel, to discover, to study other people and to write books.'
It is no surprise to discover his strong feeling for Bob Marley: 'Bob. I know by heart the words of many of his songs but there is still a great difference. He says plainly the inequality in the world. He says it and expects it to end now. That this generation will see all the changes we expect. I am one of his adepts but rather in another manner. I think he forgets we have to make the effort.'
He believes strongly that, even in South Africa, war is not a solution. 'A continent that has suffered the way Africa has suffered,' he says, 'by slavery and humiliation, has learned enough to show love instead of hate, to let people know that they must work to make the next generation better.
'I have experienced in every country friendship and racism but I am sure that racism and hate can lead to nothing, but you can go to the end of the world with friendship.
'There are countries where just a single good experience let me forget all the badness. What is the aim of life if it is not to regenerate ourselves every time? If we go with bitterness down it is just the way to destroy ourselves.
'A child's smile will let me forget a blow somebody might have given me. I live with hope and each time I think I see a light of hope I take that.'
Nicholas Howe in his article 'From Togo and Sweden: Kpomassie and Lindqvist' [Research in African Literatures - Volume 34, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 192-198
Indiana University Press} contrasts Kpomassie's book with Desert Divers, by Sven Lindqvist. [1900. reprinted by Granta, 2000]. Summary reads:
'Brought together through a coincidence of publishing, these two books form a remarkable pair when read together: the limpid narrative of a Togolese who heads north to live in Greenland because of a boyhood encounter with a book about Eskimos; and the edgy fragments of a Swede who heads south to lose himself in the Western Sahara after reading too many desert books by nineteenth-century Europeans. At times, An African in Greenland and Desert Divers become so exactly symmetrical -- in the manner of a photographic positive and negative -- that it is difficult to see one apart from the other. Kpomassie is wonderfully generous in his account, Lindqvist is laconically allusive; Kpomassie rarely cites the available scholarship on Greenland, Lindqvist seems to have absorbed every book on the Sahara by a Western writer'
To get a real sense of what Greenland looks like now, check out the wonderful photoset in the Boston Globe's 'The Big Picture' feature, published August 7th 2009. Text reads:
After almost 300 years under Danish rule, the island of Greenland has just taken a big step toward sovereignty. Greenland passed a referendum last year requesting more powers from Copenhagen, and it was granted, taking effect on June 21st, 2009. Denmark still retains control of finances, foreign affairs, and defense, but will phase out an annual subsidy, and give over control of most of the islands natural resources. Additionally, Greenlandic is now the sole official language, and Greenlanders are now treated as a separate people under international law. Although the island is massive - with an area of over 2 million square kilometers (825,000 sq mi), its population is small, with just over 57,000 residents, 88% of Inuit descent and and 12% of European descent. Collected here are some recent photographs from all around Greenland.