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When Europeans Were Refugees In Africa

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When Europeans Were Refugees In Africa

Polish town

From 1945 to 1951, the lakeside hills were dotted with hundreds of buildings that marked a self-contained Polish town. There was also the school, hospital and administrative blocks. The refugees
built numerous standard houses, 15 administrative structures, six stores, 30 kitchens, 30 market stalls, one hospital ward and 12 school blocks. The school still survives, although without the original blocks.

Today, however, all that remains of the town is the cream marble memorial stone bearing the names of the dead. An inscription on it reads: “In memory of Poles” who lived in Uganda in the years 1942-1951. Below the inscription is engraved a list of the 100 Poles who were buried here.

For those who had lived in Valivade in India, they deplored the conditions at the Kojja settlement. In The General Langfitt Story written by Dr Maryon Allbrook and Helen Cattalini, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of Polish refugees who lived in Africa and later settled in Australia, Bogdan Harbuz recalled that upon arrival at camp Kojja, they: “…were slightly disappointed. After the luxury of India it looked rather primitive to us.”

He added: “We felt very dependent on the UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration] for everything, including clothing. Our group from India sort of rebelled. We were not used to the strictness of the camp regulations so we tried to improve the conditions.”

It was the youth among the refugees who found an African setting appealing, with the potential for unlimited adventure. “I was just a youngster and was more concerned with social life, high school and the Scouting movement,” Harbuz remembered. “The rest of it didn’t interest me at the time. I did not have to worry about where the next meal came from. That was my mother’s worry. I liked what I saw around me: the big lakes, the beautiful jungle, the animals, the fruits in the jungle, the Africans. To me it was an adventure.”

Within two years of the refugees’ arrival in Uganda, a unique community life developed in the settlements. Both Kojja and Nabyeya had primary schools, secondary schools and a secondary economic school. The Polish Examination Board established examinations for students. Both settlements had hospital facilities run by Polish doctors and nurses.

The Kojja Hospital subsequently grew in size and by 1943 was able to admit up to 250 patients. It had electricity as well as a waterborne sanitation system. It also had a Polish referral section at the Kampala European Hospital in Nakasero (formerly the Uganda Television Headquarters), also run by Polish doctors and nurses.

Quite a number of the Polish medics had been trained in tropical diseases at Masaka. Trainee nurses normally took Nurses’ Examinations set by the Polish Ministry of Welfare and supervised by a local Examination Board.

Since many of the Masindi Polish refugees were orphans, there were several orphanages in the Masindi settlement. At the end of 1943, the orphanages were regrouped into a children’s village.

From the outset, the objective was to make these settlements as self-sufficient as possible. Women made up the bulk of teachers, orphanage matrons, and nurses. Women generally were engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. Starting with kitchen gardens for each home, the settlements, especially Kojja, had agricultural farms and large-scale poultry and piggery projects. The settlement was able to produce seasoned meat such as ham and sausages on a permanent basis.

The women also did a lot of weaving, and made rare linen cloth from Uganda cotton. The majority of men were artisans such as locksmiths, carpenters and joiners, shoemakers and brick-makers.

Parties were frequent, “their troubles forgotten in laughter, song and violent stomping dances,” recalled Bere. “These parties often seemed to start with barszcz and, when enough eggs could be obtained, ended with the superb cakes for which Poland was famous. Drink flowed with ‘Kojja whisky’ to the fore … hospital alcohol undoubtedly had something to do with it.”

Ugandans who lived near the camp confirm that they remember no mis-demeanours committed by their refugee neighbours. Mr Musambansiko, who worked as a guard at the Kojja camp, agrees. He noted that access to the camp was restricted and could only be granted by the camp commandant’s permission.

Also, permission to leave the settlement for a day’s trip to Kampala was normally handled by the village Settlement Committee. There was a bus to Kampala once a week for those who wished to visit the town on a day’s pass.

Socially and economically, therefore, these settlements, having remained completely self-sufficient, appear to have existed for over nine years without being overtly noticed by those who lived around them. Unconfirmed reports indicated that there were only two cases when men (an Indian and one European) from outside the settlement married Polish women from the camps. A few elderly men, such as F. Ziobrowski and one Mr Jalowiecki, themselves refugees, are reported to have married younger Polish women from the settlement at Kojja.

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