Sunday, 6 February 2011

An African in Greenland

Born in Togo in 1941 Tété-Michel Kpomassie was an unremarkable boy.
One of twenty-six children that his father and eight wives had produced Kpomassie, having enjoyed six years of elementary education, was expected to perform the duties of any other young man in his village.
This included such mundane chores as collecting coconuts which is what Kpomassie was doing on the fateful day that transformed his life forever.
While high up in the tree, collecting the coconuts as normal, he was surprised by the appearance of a massive python on the branch he was sat on. Startled, he slipped and fell from the tree and was seriously injured in the fall.
While he recovered reasonably well physically, Kpomassie remained lethargic and feverish long after the accident.
His father decided that the incident with the python had a spiritual element and decided to consult with the priestess of a python cult who was based nearby.
The priestess confirmed the family’s worst fears. Kpomassie had been cursed by the python as he fell from the tree and without her intervention he would surely die.
She informed them that she could lift the curse and save Kpomassie’s life, but there would be a price. Once cured Kpomassie would have to join the cult and live in the jungle, alongside the snakes that terrified him, for seven years.
His family saw no alternative and so agreed to the arrangement.
Incredibly, the cure worked and Kpomassie was sent back to his village to recover and prepare himself to pay off his treatment in service to the cult.
While convalescing Kpomassie visited the local library, ran by Jesuit missionaries, and found a book that would inspire the rest of his life.
It was a children’s book on Greenland and specifically the lives of the Inuit people who lived there. Kpomassie was intrigued by this land that was so different to his own.
Not only did Greenland not have snakes, it didn’t even have trees that snakes could hide in...
As soon as he was fully recovered Kpomassie ran away from home. He had decided that his destiny lay away from the jungles of Togo with it’s perilous wildlife and cults that would claim him for years of his life. His destiny was Greenland.
He travelled for twelve years across Africa and Europe, mastering as many languages as he could on the way and working his passage mainly as a translator.
Eventually, in the mid-1960's, he found himself on a boat to Greenland and arrived there to live among the Kalaalit people.
He was fascinated by their lifestyle, so alien to his own background but with many echoes.
While the diet and many of the customs of the Kalaalit tribe held little appeal to Kpomassie he felt comfortable to be among a community based around hunting and found that both his native tribe and his hosts shared a belief in the ability of the soul to travel independently of the body.
Kpomassie himself was a revelation to the Kalaalit themselves. Unused to visitors generally, they had never seen a Black man before and were flattered by the determination of their visitor to reach the land he had read about so many years before.
Eventually Kpomassie settled in France and published an account of his adventures, ‘An African in Greenland’, in 1977.

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