Following the North Star

Imagine you were born in what was then called French Togoland. Imagine you grew up feeling uneasy about some of your country’s traditions to the point you decided, at the age of 16, to leave everything behind and go on a journey that would land you in a country as far and different from Africa as one could possibly conceive.

Today I am inspired by Tete Michel Kpomassié of Togo. His extraordinary life started in 1941, in Bè Kpéhénou, in the outskirts of Togo’s capital Lomé. His father had eight wives and 26 children. From a very young age, Tete loved reading. When he wasn’t in school, he would go and fetch coconuts in the forest, to sell them and buy books. One day, as he was climbing a tree, he was surprised by a python, fell to the ground from about 10 m high and was badly hurt. His father, who had a vast knowledge of plants and traditional medicine, tried to cure him but without success. He took him to a priestess of the python cult, deep in the forest. She treated him but requested a non negotiable payment: the young boy should be brought back to her when he would be doing better to be initiated to the cult “so he would never be attacked by snakes again”. This would require living in the jungle, among snakes, for the next seven years! To his dismay, his father agreed!

While he was convalescing and powerlessly waiting to be taken back to the forest, Tete read a book about Greenland that would change the course of his life. The teenager was seduced by the distant frozen land described in the book, a land where the child is king. He then made one of the most important decisions of his life: to run away and make his way to Greenland. His journey was going to take him from a harbor to another, across three continents, never staying in the same place more than six months, using his self taught skills and easiness to speak new languages to earn money and buy his passage to his next destination.

In June 1965, eight years after leaving his native Togo, the 24 years old Kpomassié finally set foot in his dream country. The Inuit were initially afraid of him, thinking he was ‘Toornaarsuk’, a spirit who lived in the mountains and whom, according to their beliefs, was a black giant. But they quickly realized he was a real person and not a spirit. Kids were the first to adopt him. As soon as they shook his hands and saw he was not so scary after all, they took him everywhere and taught him their language.

Kpomassié stayed there 2 years, learning about their culture and traditions and teaching them about the land he came from. In 1967, he decided to go back to his newly independent native Togo to share his experience with his compatriots. It wasn’t easy to leave this beautiful country behind but he felt the need to go and teach young Togolese to embrace the world of possibilities beyond the horizon. His autobiography ‘An African in Greenland’, first published in 1981 and re-published in 2015, has been translated in eight languages and earned several literary awards. The 77 years old man now lives in France but have returned to Greenland several times over the years to visit his Inuit friends. Right Your Legacy, Kpomassié!


Um’Khonde Habamenshi