An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1981, trans. James Kirkup), is really a book that does what it says on the tin. While growing up in Togo in the 50s, Kpomassie had an unfortunate encounter with a snake. He was taken to the local snake cult to be reconciled to the revered local pythons while he was very ill; once he recovered, the priestess suggested that he be initiated as a priest himself. This was a mark of high honour for the family, so his father was delighted – but Kpomassie really did not want to return to the forest where he had had such an unpleasant experience. Quite unexpectedly, he came across the solution in a book in the local missionary bookshop – a children’s book about Greenland. The idea of an entire country too cold for either snakes or forests appealed immensely, and once he was able to do so, he ran away to an aunt’s house in neighbouring Ghana. His idea was to slowly make his way north until eventually he reached Greenland – and, as you will guess from the title, he succeeded. The first quarter of the book is about his adolescence in Togo and his slow journey through West Africa and Europe, but the bulk of it takes place in Greenland itself.

I think I was hoping that this would be more of a memoir, but it was definitely a travelogue. Kpomassie sometimes doesn’t even feel like a character within it – just an observer. This sometimes worked very well, such as when he is writing about the Greenlandic landscape or his arrival in Greenland itself. He reports the way that locals responded to him, someone so different to the population at large (his arrival was reported on national news radio!), but doesn’t explain how he himself really felt. It’s a book that looks outward and not inward, which generally suits the tone. At other times, his lack of personal commentary rankles. There are a couple of short scenes of sexual abuse, once of a child and once of a woman. These are presented briefly and almost dispassionately – since they are very shocking, this makes for uncomfortable reading. In fact, he doesn’t really present them as abuse at all, just rather nasty, undignified behaviour. Kpomassie is not much interested in the experiences of women – not at all interested, in fact – and again this sometimes stuck in my craw. (At one point, he is describing a practice of wife-swapping that occurs once a year in a particular village, with an aside that the wives don’t seem nearly as into it as the husbands – but then goes on to wonder how his father, uncles, or grandfather would feel about the practice. He doesn’t seem that fussed about how his mother, aunts, or grandmother would feel, let alone the women who are actually swapped!)

That aside, I thought he wrote about the Greenlanders he met during his travels with enthusiasm and interest. So often travel writing, especially in a culture that highly diverges from the author, presents people as extremely different, either through rose-tinted glasses or through a lens that is critical of any differences. Kpomassie, in contrast, appears to present people as he finds them – which is probably coloured by his own biases, but doesn’t seem deeply influenced in either direction. I read one review which speculated that Kpomassie had “exoticised” scenes of seal hunting, blubber eating etc – but they remind me of content in both The Whale and the Cupcake (about Alaskan cuisine) and in Walpurgis Tide (a Faroese crime novel I’ve just started), so I think perhaps they just read very differently to those of us who don’t live in the Arctic. There are graphic scenes of killing, preparing, and eating fish and animals throughout the book, so be aware of that going in if you’re someone with a sensitive stomach.

A lot of the reviews of this focus on the legacy of colonialism in both Togo and Greenland. Although Kpomassie touches on this regularly through his book (especially towards the end), it’s not really the point, and I think the reviews that draw heavily on that aspect are misleading. At the time he was travelling, Togo had become independent but Greenland had not* – so colonialism of course comes up, but Kpomassie is writing about his adventures, not on any kind of sociopolitical analysis. I think this is actually more effective, because it means that the stuff about the legacy of colonialism is presented in the context of people’s everyday lives, avoiding the kind of TED-talky/written for Twitter feeling that a similar book written today might have. Instead, the focus is on the Greenlandic landscape, and the challenges faced by anyone trying to live in such an environment. Kpomassie spends much more time on the difficulties posed by the long months of polar night than on the changes to education, for instance. Because this was written in the early 80s about travel in the 60s, there is little to nothing on the effects of climate change – I wondered as I was reading how much the culture and traditions I was reading about have evolved in response to a changing climate, but I suspect I would need to read more about Greenland today in order to get an answer.

Overall, I really enjoyed this, despite the fact that it wasn’t what I was expecting. The glimpses we do get of Kpomassie’s personality are of someone resilient, adventurous, and endlessly fascinated by the world around him; he’s generally pretty pleasant company, and makes a good guide throughout his trip. I think the strongest elements are the scenes where he’s travelling – by boat, by dogsled, or on foot – and observing the landscape as he goes. Together with that, I enjoyed reading about the strong friendships he forms with people along the way – from the Frenchman who takes him in in Paris, referred to as his “adoptive father” throughout the rest of the book, to the Greenlandic family that takes him in for most of the sunless winter months he spends in the far north of the country. The final section of the book is called “A True Greenlander”, and while we don’t get too much of the author’s views, we do get a sense of his pleasure when his friends tell him he has become one of them now. Kpomassie’s love for Greenland comes through strongly in this final section, and that makes it a real delight to read. This is a classic of travel writing, so I imagine anyone really interested in the genre has already read it, and I don’t know if I would suggest it as an entry point – but if you already like travelogues and haven’t picked this up, I recommend it.

*In fact, Greenland is still part of Kingdom of Denmark and wasn’t granted self-rule until 2008.