Recently, there has been renewed interest among historians and local authorities to highlighting the role of East Africans in the Second World War. Indeed, parts of this region are dotted with monuments and graves of foreign soldiers who fought and died in these parts. It is no longer just a footnote in history.
Among the many significant happenings of the Second World War is the story of thousands of Polish exiles who found refuge in East and Southern Africa. Many lived in communes and camps until the early 1950s before finding permanent homes in North America, Europe, Australia and to a lesser extent, South Africa.
Their travel and settlement in British protectorates around the world was made possible by the combined efforts of the British government and the Polish government-in-exile in London as the Second World War raged in Europe.
Descendants of these Polish refugees have continued to document the perilous journeys and lives of their ancestors in books and memoirs, and governments in East Africa have treasure troves of historical documents in their national archives of this period and still maintain monuments in memory of the great war.
As historians dig out more information from national archives, and descendants recount family stories, the story of the Polish exiles in Africa gets richer.
The first group of exiles arrived in Africa in late 1942-44. Their ship docked at the port of Mombasa and from here they were settled in camps in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and Zambia and Zimbabwe (formerly Northern and Southern Rhodesia).
There were 22 different camps that housed 13,000-19,000 Polish exiles spread out across East and Southern Africa, some with more than 6,000 people, others with just a handful of families. Children were the vast majority of the refugees.
It was in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where the exiles got their first glimpse of Africans close up.
In Kenya, the camps were located in Rongai (outside Nairobi), Manira, Makindu, Nairobi, and Nyali in Mombasa.
Roma J. Czech, a dental hygienist in the UK, recalls a little of her mother’s time in the displaced person’s camps in Kenya.
“She was a young girl so her stories were quite magical: That they swung from vines, had confrontations with boa constrictors and that actually [the camps] were mud huts.” Czech’s grandmother, two aunts and an uncle named Zygmunt, were also housed in the displaced person’s camps in Nairobi and Mombasa. The family later immigrated to Canada via Iran and Italy.
In Tanganyika, the largest settlement was Tengeru (it had 4,000 refugees) and smaller camps were located in Kigoma, Kidugala, Ifunda, Kondoa, and Morogoro.
The two refugee camps in Uganda were built at Koja, on the shores of Lake Victoria and Nyabyeya, Budongo Forest Reserve in Masindi district in northwestern Uganda.
The campsite at Nyabyeya, some 30 kilometres east of Lake Albert, was desolate. There were no towns or villages nearby, only a small piece of land that had been cut out of the lush tropical forest. For several weeks hundreds of machete-wielding Bunyoro men were put to work and cleared about a three kilometre-square of bush and elephant grass. They then constructed temporary mud and thatch huts.
The 3,635 Poles were housed in six small villages. Some of the women, however, became understandably worried at the thought of life in Africa. They were surrounded by dense, wildlife-infested forest.
Eventually, they found the area fertile enough to start their own farms growing bananas, pineapples, maize, tomatoes and sunflowers. They also kept some small livestock such as chicken.
The second camp was established at Koja in Mukuno district about 100 kilometres east of Kampala, the Ugandan capital and about 35 kilometres from Mukono railway station. This site was spectacularly located on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Victoria. At its peak, Koja accommodated around 3,000 Polish refugees.
The Koja settlement covered an area measuring over 700 acres and was located on several hills overlooking the lake. Care had been taken in planning the settlement to avoid giving it the look of a military barracks.
The coastline of Lake Victoria consisted of papyrus reeds, scrubby bush and dense forest, ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and tsetse fly. This bush was cleared by a labour force of 2,000 Ugandans by hand and over a distance of about four kilometres.
Within two years of the exiles arrival in Uganda, a unique community life developed in both the settlements, Koja and Nabyeya, which now had primary schools, secondary schools and a secondary economics school. The Polish Examination Board established examinations for students. Both settlements had hospital facilities run by Polish doctors and nurses.
“My two aunts lived in Koja Camp for several years and spoke of their time there with great affection. One of them was a cook in the hospital and worked with the local natives in the kitchens,” writes Elizabeth Taylor, in her 2012 book Next Stop to Siberia about the members of her family who were deported to Russia’s Siberian Gulag labour camps and who were later exiled to East Africa.
Food was purchased locally from contractors. Chicken and eggs were plentiful. Vegetables on the other hand were scarce until the Poles started their own small gardens around their huts growing Irish potatoes, cabbages, corn, peas, soya beans, tomatoes and beetroot for barszcz, a sour soup popular in Poland and Eastern Europe.
Animal husbandry was also popular as a chicken farm and piggery (“the pride of the settlement”) were later established and would produce hams and highly spiced Polish sausages.
Wood scavenged from the surrounding wilderness was used for fuel, and a bakery was eventually established that baked over one thousand loaves of bread daily.
“The aim was a contented and reasonably self-contained community: the Poles had to be given a sense of purpose,” wrote Rennie Montague Bere, a Cambridge University-educated colonial officer in Uganda who was in charge of the two refugee camps.
There were also teachers, so schools were built. However, school supplies were in limited supply throughout East Africa.
A Catholic church was constructed for the deeply religious Poles. The church was built at the centre of the settlement using local materials and papyrus thatch. The bishop came from Kampala to consecrate it.
Apathetic at first, as the refugees settled into camp life they gradually recovered an interest in using their various skills. Workshops and village industries were started.
There was also a simple apprenticeship system for the youth. There was spinning, weaving, dressmaking, basket making with raffia from the wild palm trees in the forests, carpentry and metal-working. Skins were tanned for leather and lint-cotton was purchased from nearby ginneries.
Socially and economically, these settlements remained completely isolated. But such isolation was not the norm in the rest of the camps in East Africa.
“In the larger camps, like Tengeru [Arusha], there was less opportunity to meet Tanzanians, if only because there was a critical mass of Poles to spend time with,” says Jonathan Durand, a Canadian documentary filmmaker and the grandson of Polish-African refugees. “In smaller camps, there was much more reaching out to the local communities on the part of the Poles.”
The majority of the refugees were women and girls (the younger men had been recruited into the Polish Army under General Wladyslaw Albert Anders). Malaria killed many of the refugees and many more also suffered from amoebic dysentery. The dead were buried at various graveyards in East and Southern Africa. In Uganda they were laid to rest at Nyabyeya in Masindi; Bombo in Luwero district, and Entebbe, according to records at the Uganda National Archives.
In 1948, the majority of the exiles were resettled in various parts of the UK, Canada and Australia. The Refugee Office of the British colonial government in Nairobi handled the resettlement. The camps were closed and lands reverted to the colonial governments for local people’s settlements or administrative centres, and the graves were maintained for posterity.
Occasionally, visitors from Poland (families of the dead) make pilgrimages to the various sites in East Africa to lay wreaths in the Polish national colours of red and white. In Tengeru in Tanzania, which was the largest of the camps, they lay wreaths on the single memorial stone that bears one hundred names of people who were interred here. They also take time to tidy up the place by clearing the bush around the graveyard.
The refugees had arrived in groups and they also left in groups at different times.
In 1940, following the invasion and annexation of large parts of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, there was a mass de-Polonisation of the occupied territory, and between 320,000 and one million Polish nationals were rounded up and deported to the Urals and Siberia.
For two years, freight trains ferried entire Polish families across the greater Kresy region to Kazakhstan and luckily, over 110,000 Poles among them 36,000 women and children, managed to leave the Soviet Union with the Polish forces. These exiles found temporary refuge in Iran, India, Palestine, New Zealand, Mexico and British East and Southern Africa.
The refugees arrived on African shores in two stages. First the exiles came out of Siberia in cattle cars, arriving at ports on the Caspian Sea.
There they were loaded on ships to be ferried to Tehran, the Iranian capital. Only three or so trips were allowed, so, sadly, those who arrived too late were unable to get out.
“There were definitely Jews among the evacuees. Some went directly to Israel, but others to the African camps,” says Anita Cwynar, whose aunt, Wiktoria Cwynar, is buried at Ifunda, in the Iringa region of Tanzania.