[FoRK] The strangest travel book ever written

J.Andrew Rogers andrew at ceruleansystems.com
Tue May 4 21:53:30 PDT 2004

The book referenced here sounds very interesting and looks like it  
provides an astounding perspective of two very different cultures that  
the European world is quite unfamiliar with in general, from the  
perspective of those cultures.

Kpomassie's experience with the Inuit is depicted with marvelous  
accuracy from the select quotes below, based on my own experiences --  
he notes things far more poetically than I ever have.  The Inuit in  
continental North America enjoy extremely generous welfare benefits  
that are easily on par with what the Danish government offers and far  
in excess of what is offered the general populations of the countries  
they reside in.  And with similar results.

j. andrew rogers

The strangest travel book ever written


Our dinner guest a few weeks ago got to talking about the thing we  
always get to talking about with dinner guests, The State of The  
Culture. He must have been drinking from the well of Evolutionary  
Psychology, because that is the angle he came at it from. There are (he  
claimed) tropical cultures and arctic cultures, with intermediate  
gradations. Human sexual bonding in pure-tropical cultures is of the  
“grazing” variety: a man hooks up with a woman, impregnates her, then  
wanders off and repeats the performance with another woman. The women  
don’t mind the looseness of their attachments, because in tropical  
circumstances food is easy to get, and a woman can raise children  
without much dependence on men. There are low levels of sexual  
jealousy, and “low-investment” parenting on the part of males. These  
males are, as the Evol-Psych jargon goes, “cads” rather than “dads.” In  
pure arctic cultures, by contrast, food can only be got by sustained  
arduous exertions. The species can only survive in an arctic climate by  
sticking doggedly together in tight kinship groups, practicing strict  
monogamy and high-investment parenting.

  We in the modern West (our dinner guest argued on) are mostly people  
with arctic genes trying to adjust to a tropical culture. Not that our  
climate has changed in a tropical direction, but we have simulated a  
tropical climate by inventing equality of opportunity and the welfare  
state, in which environment—just as in pre-modern Micronesia or  
equatorial Africa—women don’t really need to have men around in order  
to raise kids. Instead of food dropping from the trees, it drops from  
all those well-paid jobs that women now have equal access to—or if all  
else fails, from the welfare office. All our current social problems  
flow from this mismatch between our genetic endowment and the  
environment we have created.

  It all sounded pretty plausible as our dinner guest said it, although,  
having taken in several large glasses of vin de table, I couldn’t  
concentrate well enough to think the thing through at the time, to see  
if this cute little theory really holds water. The main effect this  
discourse had on me, in fact, was to remind me of a book I heard about  
some years ago and had always intended to read. The way these things  
happen, during an idle moment at the keyboard a day or two later, that  
book came back to mind. I logged on to Abebooks and ordered a copy. The  
book duly arrived, and I have just finished reading it.

  The book is titled An African in Greenland. Written about twenty-five  
years ago, it is the first-person account of a journey undertaken by  
the author, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, from his home village in West Africa  
to Upernavik in northern Greenland. Kpomassie’s part of Africa is  
francophone—nowadays the nation of Togo—so the book was written first  
in French, then translated into English by James Kirkup in 1983. (And  
that 1983 English edition comes with a very silly preface, packed with  
“post-colonialist” cant, by some vaporing French academic. This is not  
representative of the book. If you get this, you should rip out the  
stupid preface and stomp on it.) The latest edition of Kirkup’s  
translation, still widely available, was published by The New York  
Review of Books in 2001.[1] The author seems to have been born around  
1941; the period covered by the book is roughly 1957–1968.

  Kpomassie was raised in one of the deeply conservative tribal  
societies bordering the Gulf of Guinea. (His tribe, he tells us, was  
the Watyi.) In the late 1950s, when the story begins, these people were  
well acquainted with the modern world, but had embraced only its  
utilitarian aspects. Kpomassie’s father, for example, worked as an  
electrician, but had five wives. The family scorned Christianity,  
preferring the ancient animism of their region. After Kpomassie had an  
unpleasant encounter with a snake, his family elders decided that he  
was destined to become a priest in a local snake cult. This involved  
living in the deep jungle among pythons. Kpomassie was not keen on the  
idea. At just this time, at a bookstore in the nearest city, he  
happened to see Dr. Robert Gessain’s book The Eskimos from Greenland to  
Alaska. Kpomassie was seized with the idea that he should go and live  
among these folk. By a sustained effort of will, and through many  
difficulties—it took him six years just to work his way to Europe, two  
more to get to Greenland—he eventually did so.

  It is, as it sounds, the strangest travel book ever written. One can  
only imagine how the appearance of this tall, very black young African  
struck the Eskimos of Greenland’s tiny, isolated settlements. Kpomassie  
carries the whole thing off brilliantly. Openminded, self-assured,  
adaptable, acutely observant, and obviously very personable, he is the  
perfect guide to the Eskimos and what was left of their culture in the  
mid-1960s. There is no trace of cultural condescension in him. He has a  
sort of prelapsarian innocence that gives the book great charm. With  
that facility for languages that tribal peoples often have, he learned  
French, German, Danish (Greenland was a Danish colony at the time), and  
Eskimo. He seems to have been almost entirely self-educated, keeping up  
correspondence courses while working his way along the West African  
coast. The dust jacket says that in 1983 he was employed by a Japanese  
electronics firm in Paris. I have no knowledge of his current  

  But what about The State of The Culture? Here you surely have what  
must be the definitive test of my dinner guest’s thesis about arctic  
versus tropical genetic endowments. Well, on the evidence of  
Kpomassie’s book, the thesis is total nonsense. In the matter of sexual  
morality, for example, the Watyi were not a particularly prudish  
people, but Kpomassie was shocked by the casual promiscuity of  

	"Gerhart and I went to visit Lydia. [These people with Danish names  
are all Eskimos, by the way.] “Assavakit!” (I love you) she cried when  
she greeted me. Deeply moved, I stroked her cheek. As we were leaving,  
she told me: “Come back with Adam this evening at seven.” … That  
evening we refused all other invitations. When we got to Lydia’s room a  
little earlier than expected, we saw Karl, Adam’s brother, lying naked  
in the bed beside Lydia! They were drinking beer and laughing. Seeing  
them lying there side by side, I couldn’t help feeling upset… . To my  
astonishment, she didn’t understand why I was angry… . In Greenland,  
jealousy is frowned upon… . Greenland morality was beginning to disgust  

  These casual morals might have had nothing to do with traditional  
Eskimo culture. All these Eskimos were Danish citizens, and enjoyed the  
benefits of a typically generous Scandinavian welfare state. Nobody in  
southern Greenland seemed to do much work, and practically nobody was  
sober after mid-morning.

	 "Apart from Eric … and one or two others who often left the village  
on fishing expeditions, none of the people I met seemed to have any  
definite job. Gerhart trailed me around with him day and night and  
seemed to do nothing. [Karl] gave me the impression of being a parasite  
living off his brothers… . As for Hans, who supposedly worked at the  
naval dockyard, not once since my arrival had he gone to work. Yet  
Paulina was always offering coffee and drinks to visitors. How did she  
get the money? Well, let’s face it: a lot of able-bodied Greenlanders  
simply live on allowances from the Danish government.
	 Why is this? Children are sent to school but are not taught anything  
about their traditional activities. Even worse, their way of life is  
disparaged to their faces… . When they grow up, they can’t even paddle  
a kayak. That’s how things are for the Greenlanders on the southern  
coast. “But are there still places with seal hunters and huskies,  
sledges and kayaks?” I asked. “Avannamût!” (You must go further  

So further north Kpomassie goes. There he does indeed find the old way  
of life still in some kind of existence, and goes hunting for whale,  
seal, and blue shark, in the traditional style, passing comments on the  
differences between whale hunting in the arctic and lion hunting on the  
African plains— Kpomassie must surely be the only person that has ever  
been qualified to make such comparisons. He finds the sexual morals of  
the north no stricter than those of the south, though. At the  
northernmost of his residences, a traditional Eskimo turf house, he  
slept together with all his host’s family in a single bed, for warmth.  
The family included a girl of twenty who was eight months pregnant. She  
claimed not to know who the father was, but “village gossip alleged it  
was her own father.”

  Kpomassie speaks plainly about the dirt and squalor of Eskimo life,  
and leaves one with the definite impression that a high level of  
tolerance for the disgusting is essential for anyone who wishes to  
dwell among these people.

	 "All the filth of Christianshåb was suddenly exposed by the sun’s  
return and the thaw. Snow melted on the slopes, the street became a  
river of mud, and innumerable streams riddled the ash-grey earth and  
brought to light piles of old bottles and cans, dog shit, household  
waste, and rotten potatoes. All the garbage which cold and snow had  
preserved—now swollen with melted water, rotting fast and buzzing with  
clouds of flies … came out to haunt us like a bad conscience. Outside  
the doors and under the foundations, the houses were repulsively  
filthy… . A sickening stench hung everywhere. The dogs, some of them  
now moulting, slunk squalidly round the village."

  For all the disgust, though, Kpomassie falls deeply in love with the  
Eskimos and their land, thereby accomplishing what must surely be the  
most astounding act of cultural assimilation in all of human history.

	"More than once, the previous winter, I had driven a dog-sled team  
alone, perched on my load of frozen fish, often through starry nights  
swept by the aurora borealis. In those moments of intense cold, with my  
eyes focused on the track beaten smooth by sleds and my body full of a  
sense of sweet well-being, I had never missed my native Africa, for the  
poetry of movement on the ice froze up the muggy heat of my native  
tropics. I had adapted so well to Greenland that I believed nothing  
could stop me spending the rest of my days there."

An African in Greenland is a fascinating book, and I could write about  
it all day. It would, of course, be more economical of your time to  
just get a copy and read it for yourself, which I urge you to do.

  Though it tends to explode my dinner guest’s glib little thesis,  
Kpomassie’s book speaks to The State of The Culture nonetheless.  
Reading it, I found myself thinking of my own background, in a way I  
never quite had before. Born a few years after Kpomassie and raised in  
an English country town, I am one of the last generation of Westerners  
to have experienced a culture with strong traditional values. The  
things I was taught as a child—the hymns and songs and poems, the Latin  
and geometry and grammar, the street games and rhymes and customs,  
respect for the Crown, the Church, the Nation, the School, my  
elders—were much closer to the things my great-grandparents were taught  
than they are to anything an English child born twenty years after me  
would have learned.

  Kpomassie’s upbringing was even more infused with tradition than mine.  
The words “tradition,” “traditional,” “custom,” and “customary” occur  
so often when he is writing about his own African culture, in fact,  
that you start to notice it.

	"Each of the wives was periodically omitted … because of our father’s  
rigorous observance of certain traditional prohibitions … I was the  
youngest of the three, so according to custom I was walking in front …  
Even twins are not exempt from this rule in our traditionalist families  
… Custom did not lay down the position that [the dog] should occupy on  
that narrow path, so he often amused himself by scampering off … They  
didn’t dare take me to the hospital, either because it didn’t occur to  
them or because tradition dictated otherwise … At nightfall my father’s  
first wife whom I addressed according to tradition by the respectful  
title of Nagan …"

  My upbringing wasn’t as tradition-bound as Kpomassie’s, but by the  
time I reached any kind of social awareness I knew that a question  
addressed to an adult and beginning with the words “Why should I have  
to … ?” was most likely to be met with a glance of angry puzzlement and  
the response: “Because that’s the way it’s done!”

  For example: In movie theaters in England in the 1950s, the National  
Anthem was always played at the end of the movie. Everybody stood up  
and stayed at attention out of respect to the Monarch until the anthem  
was over. (There was in fact, by the early 1960s, an unseemly scramble  
for the exits as the movie came to an end, to avoid having to stand  
through the Anthem. That only strengthens my point, though; if you  
hadn’t made it out of the theater when the Anthem started, you had to  
freeze to attention till it was over.)

  I can’t even imagine people standing still for the National Anthem in  
a movie theater nowadays—not even in the United States, where  
patriotism is still strong. In England? Forget it! Yet that’s the way  
we were, just forty years ago. As I said, in the matter of tradition  
and custom, English people of my generation were closer to their  
great-grandparents than they would be to their own children.

  And the break-up of the whole thing was of course my generation’s  
fault. When we reached the age at which we knew everything, at which  
our minds had penetrated all the way through the deepest mysteries of  
the universe—which is to say, round about age sixteen—we came to find  
all that tradition and custom unbearably irksome. We ostentatiously  
remained seated during the post-movie National Anthem, to much disgust,  
and sometimes abuse, from older members of the audience. None of that  
fuddy-duddy hidebound old nonsense for us! I suppose that Kpomassie’s  
misgivings about his predestined career as a snake-cult priest were  
akin, in some way, to our distaste for the customary ways of midcentury  
English society.

  In his book, Kpomassie draws a melancholy picture of a deserted Eskimo  
village. It had dawned on the inhabitants one day that they could swap  
their traditional, very arduous, hunting lifestyle for the much easier  
fishing-and-welfare ways of the nearby town, so they all decamped. I  
guess the psychology at work there was similar in some way to  
Kpomassie’s balking at becoming a snake-cult priest or to my staying  
seated through “God Save the Queen.”

  Flipping through some internet sites to see what has happened to the  
Greenland Eskimos in the thirty-odd years since Kpomassie left them, I  
find no good news.

	"Many of the Eskimo (Inuit) people survive by hunting and fishing and  
are struggling as fish stocks become depleted. [Greenland’s] population  
is only 56,000. Inhabitants face severe social problems, notably  
unemployment, alcoholism and rates of AIDS infection. —BBC News"

  You could argue that even this is for the best. The traditional Eskimo  
life was awfully hard, especially on the old. (The ice floe business  
you have heard about is not quite true, but something similar went on.  
Kpomassie is very eloquent about the reverence given to old people in  
his African tribe, as against the “useless mouths” attitude that seems  
to have prevailed among the Eskimos.)

  I doubt things are going much better with the traditional West African  
society Kpomassie was raised in. My guess is that it has been smashed  
to pieces by combined assaults from the international-aid  
bureaucracies, the rapacity of French industrialists and politicians,  
and misrule by Sorbonne-educated African intellectuals, steeped—like  
all modern intellectuals—in a deep contempt and loathing for ordinary  
people, for their traditions and customs and folkways, their beliefs  
and attitudes, their tastes and preferences, their religion and ethnic  

  What happened to the Eskimos and the Watyi has also happened to us in  
some degree. My kids don’t play the street games we used to play (some  
of which, according to Peter and Iona Opie’s classic The Lore and  
Language of Schoolchildren, go back to Roman times), because they are  
too busy on the computer. Reverence for the Flag, the Country, the  
Church, the School, the Family? But these are just human institutions,  
staffed by ordinary fallible human beings, who frequently behave in  
ridiculous ways. What’s to reverence? We seem to have actually lost  
some conceptual power, the power to see past individual persons to the  
institutions they represent. Perhaps this is the final triumph of  

  There is, of course, a case to be made for this great transformation.  
Quite possibly we, if not the Eskimos and Watyi, have gained more than  
we have lost. Those old traditional folkways were not all benign.  
(Kpomassie hints at human sacrifice—not among his own people, but in a  
neighboring tribe.) To an intelligent and imaginative young person—me,  
Kpomassie, no doubt many Eskimos—the weight of custom and tradition can  
be intolerably suffocating, the urge to kick against it, or escape from  
it, irresistible.

  Still, when we escaped from all that, we at least understood that we  
had lost something, and this is a thing that the following generations  
do not know. “Why should I have to … ?” No reason, really, none that  
stands up to rigorous logical scrutiny. So don’t, if you don’t feel  
like it. Those who know about and care about nothing at all that is  
old, traditional or customary are adrift and aimless in a blank,  
nihilistic, hedonistic world, in which nothing matters much because  
everything is permitted. How I pity them!

  Is modern Western culture really anything more than just a better  
furnished version of the booze-sodden, AIDS-addled, traditionless,  
pointless existence of the modern Greenlanders? I don’t know, I just  
wonder. I am sure that Tété-Michel Kpomassie, wherever he is, wonders  
the same thing. So, probably, do a few Eskimos. What a wonderful book,  
to make a person think so much!

  John Derbyshire’s latest book is Prime Obsession (Joseph Henry Press).


Go to the top of the document.

	1.  	 An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie; The New York  
Review of Books, 432 pages, $12.95. Go back to the text.

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