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A Polish refugee returns to Masindi, Uganda where he spent the war years 1942-1948 after fleeing the gulags of Siberia.
Our visit to Masindi and Tengeru
The next item on our program was visiting Masindi, where the largest Polish refugee camp in Africa was located, liquidated in 1948. To get to Masindi we had to break through the outskirts of the incredibly poor and dirty Kampala. The traffic of cars and motorbikes - mainly scooters - was amazing, but once you left the capital, where about 3 million people currently live, the road was easier and the ride was very pleasant, although the poverty of passing villages and settlements was depressing.
Passing through the town of Luwero, we turned sideways to visit the newly emerging monastery of the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver. I received contact to them from the sister of an acquintance , also a missionary sister. We wanted to see what the life of the missionary sisters is like in their natural surroundings. The sisters received the land from the Bishop of Kampala and thanks to the generosity of their donors they erected a building in which the reception centre, novitiate and convent of the missionary sisters will be located. The building is not finished yet, but three sisters and two postulants who are to develop the rooms and the land around the building already live in it. Looking at the modest, but clean and tidy, conditions for future novices and comparing them to homes passed along the way, it was difficult not to resist the rather elegant supposition that there could be a lot of willing girls! I even talked about it with my sister when I returned to London, who assured me that this is a question that all missionary gatherings ask themselves. Nevertheless, every young person - boy or girl - who will spend some time in the congregation he or she joined, without a real calling, then goes into the world more aware of the truths of faith and having a slightly better education. And this is for the benefit of the community to which he/she returns; so this is not time and money wasted.
The sisters were very happy about our unannounced visit, and they showed us around the facility and offered a traditional Ugandan dinner. After that we were back on the road.
In the evening we arrived in the town of Masindi, where we had two nights booked in a small hotel, consisting of rather primitive huts. The hotel was run by Sally, an Englishwoman from central England, who spent her childhood and youth alongside parents working in the administration of British colonies in Uganda. After returning to England, raising her children and her husband's death, she returned to her beloved Uganda, where she bought a modest little hotel, improved its standard a little and to this day runs it, although she is well over eighty. She intends to end her life in Masindi and be buried here. When she heard about my husband's fate, she expressed a desire to spend the next day with us visiting Polish sites in Masindi. She knew very well the history of the Polish camp.
So, in the morning, on a cloudy September day, we headed towards the former Polish camp. The road first led through the town, as poor as all the ones passed the previous day, and soon we turned right into a dirt field, compacted with red soil, a road that led us through fields, near thatched black huts, through poor settlements where stalls with clothes and fruit encouraged passers-by to buy. However, we went on and on until we entered the area of Nyabyeya Forestry College, which operates in the area of the former Polish refugee camp. At the entrance, a catechist of the local Catholic community who was waiting for us got into our car and we drove together to the hill on which the church of Our Lady of Częstochowa is visible from afar. The brick church, a bit in Zakopane style, was built by Poles, mainly women, who, finding themselves on foreign land, began their life as immigrants by building a church. The place of honour is held by the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa and the main entrance door has an inscription in three languages: Polish, English and Swahili: ' THIS CHURCH IN HONOUR OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, QUEEN OF THE POLISH CROWN, WAS BUILT BY POLISH REFUGEES DURING THEIR JOURNEY TO A FREE FATHERLAND''.
At the door to the church, Father Peter Wasswa, a priest of Nyabyeya Polish Church, with whom I had an appointment, greeted us. He expressed great joy that he could welcome in his parish a man, today an aged pensioner, who in the 1940s was a resident of the Polish camp, attended the church and served as an altar boy. My husband was clearly touched. He remembered the church perfectly. We went inside. We were greeted by the clapping of the faithful, who were slowly filling the large interior; mainly young people and lots of children. Dozens of choristers - in neat, orange T-shirts - occupied the right side of the church. Older parishioners sat on the left side on wooden benches. Places for us were reserved in the first bench, and before us were children sitting on a mat. They arranged their shoes evenly in front of the mat. Older girls cared for younger siblings. The church was full.
The priest came out, assisted by altar servers, greeted us very warmly and the mass began. The four-voice choir sang beautifully and for a long time, with the regular parts of the mass sang in Latin. A group of dancers accompanied them with dances, perhaps a little too suggestive for us, but for the faithful clearly being an important part of the service which went on for a long time. Holy Masses are celebrated in this church every other Sunday and the faithful come to the service from all over the area. The priest uses the moment to present parishioners' concerns and needs to the community. This time, for example, he urged generous material support, because the church needs renovation and the tower, above the altar, is leaking. It is worth mentioning that the faithful were modestly but neatly dressed despite the really difficult conditions in which they live. They were also very joyful.
Before the last blessing, the priest said a little more about the story of my husband - and other Poles who lived here - and he allowed me, on behalf of my husband, who was too moved to speak, to say a few words. So I was able to thank the residents of Masindi for the help given to Polish refugees in the 1940s and to provide them with space to live in freedom.
After the mass, when the faithful had already left, we walked peacefully around the church looking at the old benches - are they still the same (?) - and faded Stations of the Cross with Polish inscriptions. Under them were inscriptions in English
We said goodbye to the priest, thanking him for a truly touching experience, and went to the cemetery, thoroughly cleaned several years ago by students of the Jagiellonian University. Unfortunately today it requires another renovation. We stood at the grave of Józefa Mazan, my husband's grandmother. This moment evoked moving memories. My husband's grandmother, whom he remembers perfectly, died on African soil and was buried there. Let this African soil be light to her. We stopped at each grave, recognizing some of the names we knew from London and saying a silent prayer for all of them. Particularly sad were the graves of the infants – an entire row- who lived only two days and had no life.
We returned to the office of Father Peter, where I gave money brought from London, transferred to me by our newspaper, for the needs of the Polish church. We also passed on small things that we brought for the students of the local school.
We spent the whole afternoon looking for traces of the camp. Everything looked different. The forest that surrounded the camp had disappeared. Corrupt natives had cut it out, selling it for fuel thus disturbing the natural balance of the environment. As the catechist who still accompanied us told us, many Polish homes are still in use. They are poor and neglected but Forestry Commission staff live in them. The camp management houses are now part of the college I mentioned at the beginning. Apparently, after the evacuation of Poles from the camp in 1948, university students who were in danger of coma spread by tse tse flies, moved into them. Conditions in Polish homes were much better than in the native huts.
Wandering around the grounds of the former camp, we tried not to disturb the peace of the families living there, but the kids came out of their huts to look at these unusual tourists. Apparently, there are efforts to make the existing Polish houses a World Heritage Site, for eternal commemoration; whether it will happen is hard to say. It is also difficult to say whether it would make any sense. The houses are poor, neglected, primitive. Is it worth saving them for posterity? I do not know.
However, there is no doubt that the presence of Poles in refugee camps on the African continent is an extraordinary phenomenon of the twentieth century.
I will come now to the third place of remembrance of Poles, this time in Tengeru, Tanzania, although in the meantime we had some different experiences. However, this will close this Polish aspect of our African adventure. We didn't plan to stop there, but when we landed at Kilimanjaro airport, near Arusha, it turned out that the Polish cemetery in Tengeru was on our route and we had time to see it before the next flight to a safari. So we got up very early in the morning, to go a little out of our way and pray for dead Poles in this next memorial site.
The Tengeru Cemetery is the best kept. A beautifully groomed avenue with flowering bushes leads to it, at the top of which stands a board with the inscription: 'CEMETERY OF POLISH REFUGEES'. Next, the gate to the cemetery itself. The object is guarded by a Tanzanian, whose father was an employee of the Agricultural Institute, founded on the site of the former Polish refugee camp. As I find out from the plaques placed in the “arcade of memory” secured by a roof: 'In Tengeru, roughly five thousand Poles were settled. The first transport arrived at the port of Tanga on August 27, 1942. The settlers in Tengeru ran a specialized farm. There were numerous primary schools and commercial, tailoring, technical and mechanical schools, as well as a music, agriculture and high school. There were kindergartens. Artistic (theatre, choir, brass band) and sports groups were formed. An estate theatre, sports fields and tennis courts were built. There was a medical clinic. A catholic church, an orthodox church and a synagogue were built. Scouts, club rooms, Marian Sodality and a YMCA club were established. The great organization of the estate and the harmonious co-existence of the inhabitants made this place a part of a distant homeland.
On another board, which also has a lot of photographs, is the history of Poles whose fate led them to the African continent. So we read about the deportation to the Soviet Union , about the amnesty and the army of Anders and the Polish families who could not remain in Persia or Palestine any longer. All information is provided in Polish and English, which is also the official language in Tanzania.
After the end of hostilities, Poles were given the opportunity to return to their country. Most of them had nowhere to return. Their lands and family homes were often now in the Soviet Union. Others, for fear of communist rule in Poland, decided to emigrate to various countries or stay in Africa. The settlement of refugees from African settlements lasted until the 1950s. Only 20% of them decided to return to their country, mainly for family reasons, the majority went to Great Britain, others to the United States, Australia and Canada. However, a thousand people remained in Tanganiyka (as it was then called) who received a permanent residence permit. And they, in Tengeru, founded a Specialized Farm, which in time evolved into the National Agricultural Institute, which to this day cooperates with the Warsaw University of Agricultural Economics SGGW.
We made an entry in the memorial book and went to pray for the dead. There are many graves here, several times more than in Koji or Masindi. There are also Jewish and Orthodox tombs among them. The humid hot wind of Tanzania apparently did not serve our countrymen. There were a lot of baby graves. On a separate path there are the graves of those who stayed in Tengeru after the war. The last of them, Konrad Wójtowicz, died in 2015. Local people apparently take special care of these graves. They must have been very loved by them.
Returning on a winding, long road, I had two reflections: how good it is that in all the places we visited there remained a practical, positive memory of Poles: the clinic and school in Koja, the church in Masindi and the Agricultural School in Tengeru. And a second reflection, or rather a question: why did the English send Poles so far into the African continent? It must have been a very impractical solution. I saw those trucks transporting Poles through the African bush through winding, bumpy roads. They had to go all day, tired, scared, sick. Why? I will probably never receive an answer to this question.
During Gokturk's and Ray's visit to RC Olsztyn Varmia
they were taken to see the club's Community Kitchen
project (a wonderful recently completed modern
facility) prior to presenting RC Warszawa Wilanow's
Uganda project. The presentation was greeted
with great enthusiasm leading to a financial contribution
by RC Olsztyn Varnia for which we warmly thank