By James Omolo
In a small field, tucked away from view, within the periphery of a market town in the Arusha region of Northern Tanzania, lies a curious sign at the main entrance of a cemetery: “Cmentarz wygnancow Polskich, Cemetery of Polish war refugees Tengeru.”
Thousands of Europeans found a home in Africa during the Second World War. Among them, about 18,000 Poles arrived in Africa between 1942 and 1943. Their journey to Africa started by travelling through British ships, via India to the coastal ports of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Mozambique. The refugees proliferated across the British East African colonies, including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika, and also to the Southern part of Africa, in countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe
Traversing through the craggy terrain, gazing around as their trains snaked across the ragged mountains towards Tehran in Iran, thousands of beleaguered Polish refugees were oblivious what the future held for them. Taken by rail more than a thousand kilometers north, with no possessions, everything left behind. All they had were the fresh memories of subjugation, forced labor, and the struggle for survival. Unequivocally, little did they know that they would be embarking on a long odyssey through dangerous murky waters of the Indian Ocean infested by numerous German and Japanese submarines. They had little concept of Africa, except perhaps from a dystopian view of the continent through some pre-war literature from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s book W pustyni i w puszczy (In Desert and Wilderness).
Africa was exotic and a place few Poles would have imagined to be a home – probably the least preferred. However, they were at the behest of the British to provide them with a haven in the ally’s colonies. These African territories later endowed them with a magical moment needed for healing following a long spell of brutality in the Soviet camps.
As we generally know, on September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the West; a few weeks later, the country was attacked by the Soviets from the East, as a result of a pact signed by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The Russian invasion saw many Polish people taken to forced labor camps, in what was known as the Gulag system, while some were exiled in Siberia. In June 1941, the Germans betrayed the Soviets by invading the Eastern part of Poland, occupied by the Russians. This attack proved to be a salvation to many of the Polish exiles. And, as we know from the history books, at this time, there was a Polish government-in-exile in London, led by General Władysław Sikorski.
On July 30, 1941, Sikorski reached an agreement with Stalin, granting freedom to exiled Poles, both civilians and those serving in the military. As a result, many Poles left the Soviet region. This is where the story gets fascinating. Unfortunately, you won’t find much about this in your typical history book.
The mass evacuation of Polish refugees from Russia to Iran was a hefty logistic operation for the allies. They would later be taken to temporary refuge in India, Palestine, Mexico, New Zealand, and the British East, and Southern Africa. They wanted to send them far from the proximity of war; Africa provided a better sanctuary and the British colonies offered the refuge.
Little Poland in Africa
Few people, especially people in Poland, know of Africa’s incredible role during the Second World War. Africa, as is well documented, has received disproportionate media coverage, often served as a footnote. In fact, parts of the East African region are marked with monuments and graves of foreign soldiers who died during the war.
For many Poles, this was no mere footnote. This was a major narrative that saved lives. Considering her remoteness, East and Southern Africa provided a haven to many Polish refugees. Women, children, and teenagers comprised the majority of the refugees. Teenagers were mainly female because the males were already in military camps in Palestine and Egypt. Men comprised a small percentage; they were either frail or too old for a military assignment.
Throughout the continent, there were a total of 19 camps established specifically for Polish refugees. In Uganda, the camps were positioned in Masinde and Koja on Lake Victoria; in Kenya, the camps were based in Rongai, Manira, Nairobi, and Nyali; and in Tanganyika. In South Africa, the camps were located in Oudsthoorn, and in Zimbabwe, the camps were stationed in the Northern and Southern parts. Out of these 19, the largest camp was in Tangeru, Tanzania, with about 4,000 refugees divided into several smaller camps. The second largest refugee camp was Koja, in Uganda. It accommodated about 3,000 Polish refugees.
Polish refugees adapted to their new environment. Considering the abundance of food in African villages, they found the areas to be fertile and started growing vegetables; they gained interest in cultivating local crops, they kept poultry in a nutshell, and they took on a village life alongside the local community. Africa embraced them.
In all the camps, there were Polish schools, churches, hospitals, and community centers. Polish culture was thriving. There was even a Polish-language program on African radio, and Polish press. It was Little Poland in Africa. The Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare of the Polish government-in-exile set up a branch in Nairobi, Kenya.
After the war ended, things took a dramatic twist when Britain withdrew its support for the Polish government in favor of the Soviets. The refugees were reluctant to go back to Poland under the Soviet occupation due to their perennial distrust of the Soviets. They were later offered options: some were taken to Canada, the US, Australia, or England. Their resilience, stoicism, and spunk saw them through the whole resettlement. Even though many of them relocated, some 1,000 stayed in Tengeru, and made it home for several generations.
Many of them died from malaria and dysentery. Many of them lived full lives and helped make the world a better place.
James Omolo is the author of Strangers at the Gate: Black Poland. This article is based on a section of the book.