Task: Read a travel memoir.
My first instinct here was to grab something by Bill Bryson that I haven’t read, because he’s funny and I like him. I also considered picking up something by Paul Theroux. I thoroughly enjoyed Riding the Iron Rooster while I was living in China – I thought Theroux was a total jerk (at least according to his own account of his interactions), but his writing is gorgeous. At some point, though, while poking around looking for something to read for this challenge, I realized that all of the travel writing I’ve enjoyed was written by white American men.
So in an effort to get out of my comfort zone, I settled on An African in Greenland, which is Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s account of his journey from Togo to Greenland, originally published in 1967. I knew very little about either Togo or Greenland, and Kpomassie was a positively charming guide to both locations. This is the sort of person who arrives in Paris, meets a total stranger, and within an hour has a place to stay – for months. At one point, he literally knocks on a stranger’s door in Greenland and asks the family inside if he can stay with them. And they say yes.
Someone’s opinions of places usually say more about that person than any city or culture encountered, and Kpomassie was travelling in the friendliest, most inviting world I’d ever heard of.
When one has been made as welcome as I was, it is hard to agree with the common sweeping judgment that the French are not very hospitable. Certainly, like anyone else, I ran into occasional trouble in a city as large as Paris; but this was amply compensated for by the two men whose goodness of heart and simplicity of manner made me more optimistic than ever. It was in this state of mind that I continued my journey across Europe. (66)
Kpomassie started life in Togo, where a book about Greenland caught his attention. He made it his life’s mission to get to Greenland, which involved a decade of effort, any segment of which would most likely have made for a full-fledged memoir. He traveled up the coast of West Africa through Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mauritania, and then spent time in several European cities including Paris, Bonn, and Copenhagen, where he gradually built the funds for his journey north through odd jobs and good will (people liked this young person well enough to finance significant portions of his travel, and one gentleman went so far as to consider himself Kpomassie’s adopted father).
There’s a picture in the book of Kpomassie arriving in Greenland, surrounded by Greenlanders. He towers over the crowd by at least a couple of feet, and he’s grinning in a way that makes it easy to believe that he’s capable of conquering the globe solely with the power of his own charm. He isn’t straight-laced by any stretch of the imagination, though – he parties like most of the expats I met in China (hard). At one point, he casually mentions being delayed in his travels due to a weeks-long confinement in a hospital for an unnamed venereal disease. I mean, I’ve been more upset about getting stuck at a red light than this guy seemed to be about that particular episode.
The book is translated from French, and there are several bits that are quite lovely reading:
There were ice blocks of varying shapes and sizes, drifting here and there as the waves took them. The smallest looked like swimming swans, and some were like crouching camels rocking gently from side to side. Some were white, others green or blue. A brilliant sun, cold as steel, glittered on them and transformed the sea into a fairy tale world: a vast blue expanse strewn with great chunks of crystal. A dazzling glitter seethed and multiplied. (79)
He also does an excellent job of describing processes – fishing techniques, seal hunting, dog sled harnesses and operation. I was able to follow him, here, in Arkansas, in 2017, and feel like I could visualize the things he saw and did during his travels.
The Greenland Kpomassie visited was in a state of flux. As a Togolese man, Kpomassie is no stranger to colonialism, and he describes its effects where he sees them. He describes feral packs of starving huskies in a village where hunters now work in commercial fishing and have no use for dogs. He sees Greenlander shacks set up next to luxurious Danish camps – “Even in the Arctic, equality is only a word” (118). But even though he gets sassy about a pair of missionaries he meets on a boat – “I was skeptical about their chances of making many conversions between now and the end of the world, which they said was close at hand – especially among a people already deeply Christian and entirely Lutheran” (173) – it doesn’t stop him from befriending them.
This has been one of my favorite finds of this challenge so far, because I liked the writer so much and never would have met him if it weren’t for this project.
Kpomassie frequently uses the word Eskimo to describe the people he stays with, though he does acknowledge that the term is problematic. This sent me down a rabbit hole that I’m glad to have gone down.
I’d been under the impression that “Eskimo” is an out-and-out slur, with Inuit being the preferred term. Today I learned that this is a huge oversimplification. The problem (as I understand it) with the word “Eskimo” is that it’s a name given to native Arctic peoples by non-native-Arctic people. There are quite a few theories as to the origin of the term, and it is indeed offensive to native people in Canada.
However, “Eskimo” is an acceptable term to many native Alaskans, because of the presence of both Inuit and Yupik peoples in the region (“Inuit” simply means “people” in the Inuit language family but isn’t a word at all in Yupik languages). There are over 40 culturally distinct ethnic groups and a corresponding number of languages in the Arctic as well – it’s a complex region of the world that’s engaged in a high-stakes fight for its survival right now, and I’m glad to know a little more about it.
AND I came across this book, which was originally written in phonetic Inuttitut, translated into French, and then translated into English, which I’m very excited to read!