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Dispatches: An African in Greenland

By Geoff Wisner


With its bookshelves organized by country, New York’s Idlewild Books is a great resource for anyone who wants to delve into a particular corner of the world.

For instance, fiction from the Cape Verde islands is very tough to find, and when I was there the other day I was surprised and impressed to find The Last Will and Testament of Señor da Silva Araujo, a novel by the Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida.

I had come, though, to hear Tété-Michel Kpomassie, the author of An African in Greenland. Translated from the French by James Kirkup and first published in English in 1983, the book was reprinted in 2001 by New York Review Books, with an introduction by A. Alvarez. It has become one of their most popular and enduring titles.

People often say that reading a book changed their life, but the change is rarely as concrete and dramatic as it was in the case of Kpomassie. (The K, he explained, is silent.)

As a Togolese teenager in the 1950s, Kpomassie bought a book called The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska while he was still a boy, and he was fired with the desire to travel to Greenland and live with the Inuit. But equally important was the accident he suffered beforehand: an encounter with a python and a fall from a coconut tree that unsettled him in more ways than one, and may have left him open to new ways of thinking about his life.

Forty years after his first adventures in Greenland, Kpomassie looked trim, fit, and even professorial, though he noted that he had only six years of formal schooling. As a result, “my French is my French” and “my English is my English.” (His English, as it happened, was excellent. The few missteps, like pronouncing the “g” in “gnat,” merely added to his charm.)

He read a section of his book that describes his first arrival in Greenland, where most people “had never seen a man of my race, except perhaps in newspaper photographs.”

As soon as they saw me, all talking stopped. So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight. Then they started to smile again, the women with slightly lowered eyes. When I was standing before them on the wharf, they all raised their heads to look me full in the face. Some children clung to their mothers’ coats, and others began to scream with fright or to weep.

An exhibit of art based on Kpomassie’s book is on display at a Hell’s Kitchen gallery until October 24. I haven’t been there yet, but I suspect it is well worth checking out.

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at

Published Sep 24, 2009   Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner

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