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When Europeans Were Refugees In Africa

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When Europeans Were Refugees In Africa

Kojja and Nyabyeya camps

The two refugee camps in Uganda were built at Kojja and Nyabyeya. Nyabyeya is today within the Budongo Forest Reserve in Masindi District, northwestern Uganda.

The campsite, located some 30km east of Lake Albert at Nyabyeya, was desolate. There were no towns or villages nearby, just a small piece of land that had been hacked out of the lush tropical forest. For several weeks thereafter, hundreds of machete-wielding Bunyoro people hacked out a bigger space, about 3km square, from the rank tangle of bush, roots and elephant grass. Here they constructed temporary mud huts roofed with thatch.

Some of the Polish women, however, became understandably worried at the thought of life in the African bush. They were surrounded by dense forest full of wildlife: “We will be eaten alive by wild beasts,” they cried.

The camp consisted of six small villages and hosted 3,635 Poles. Eventually, these Polish peasant farmers found the area fertile enough to start their own gardens where they grew bananas, pineapples, maize, tomatoes and sunflowers. They kept livestock too.

A second camp had also been established at Kojja in Mukuno District about 100km east of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and about 35km from Mukono railway station on the shores of Lake Victoria. It was located in a beautiful setting on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Victoria, surrounded by water on three sides and forest and savanna on the fourth. At its peak, Kojja accommodated around 3,000 Poles. In spite of its seemingly idyllic setting, the camp was far removed from contact with the Africans and the outside world in general.

The Kojja 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.

Eventually, there would be more than 4,000 refugees at Nyabyeya (Masindi) and 3,000 at Kojja (Mukono). Bere says that by the end of 1943, the total refugee population of both camps would number more than twice the total European population of Uganda.

The coastline of Lake Victoria consisted of papyrus reeds, scrubby bush and lacustrine forest, ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and tse tse fly. Thus it had to be cleared and compacted over a stretch of about 3km – all by hand. The clearing of the reeds, forest and bush as well as the road-making required a labour force of 2,000 Africans.

During leisure hours, there was bathing in Lake Victoria at certain times, when armed guards would be on duty, lest hippos and crocodiles joined in the fun. Some of the Poles took to fishing. With the aid of an old motorboat, Bere took the refugees on tours of some of the smaller islands in the lake where they watched water-birds and hippos at play.

Food was purchased locally from contractors. Chickens and eggs were plentiful. Vegetables on the other hand were scarce until the Poles started their own small gardens around their huts. Fuel was wood scavenged from the surrounding wilderness. A bakery was eventually established which baked over 1,000 loaves daily.

As Bere says: “The aim was a contented and reasonably self-contained community… the Poles had to be given a sense of purpose.”

Among the refugees at Kojja were two doctors and a couple of partially trained nurses. This was enough, however, for them to build a 50-bed hospital equipped and supplied from the government’s medical stores. A Catholic church was also constructed for the deeply religious Poles. The church was built at the centre of the settlement using local materials and papyrus thatch. A bishop came from Kampala to consecrate it.

Among the Poles were teachers. School buildings were put up. However, school supplies were limited throughout East Africa. “At one stage we actually burnt charcoal to give the children something to write with,” Bere recalled.

The refugees were apathetic at first but as they settled into camp life they gradually recovered an interest in using their various skills. Workshops and village industries, with a simple apprenticeship system for the youth, were started.

There was spinning, weaving, dressmaking, basket making with raffia from the wild palm trees in the forests, carpentry and metalworking. Skins were tanned for leather; lint-cotton was purchased from nearby ginneries.

Land was plentiful for farming. After the Ugandans had cleared away the scrub, ox-drawn ploughs went to work to open up the land. The Poles grew Irish potatoes, cabbages, corn, peas, soya beans, tomatoes and beetroot for the barszcz, a Polish dish. A chicken farm and piggery was eventually established. The latter became “the pride of the settlement” and would produce hams and highly spiced Polish sausages.

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