When Tanzania was home to Poles

It is difficult to find any information about the village of Tengeru in northern Tanzania located just over 100 kilometers from Kilimanjaro. However, thousands of Poles found an asylum there in the 1940s after a long exile from Siberia

Between 1942 and 1950, there was the largest camp for Polish refugees in Africa. According to the documents collected at the Institute of National Remembrance, in 1946, as many as 4,000 people lived there. The cultural and religious life developed in the camp, as well as services, schools, hospitals, an orphanage and an old people’s home [2]. 

“Our camp was inhabited by over 500 Polish families. It was already a little Polish state. In comparison to our houses, larger buildings stood out from a distance. It was a hospital and a school. There was also an orphanage run by nuns. (…) The children were provided with good care, food, clothes and school. There were over 50 of them from various Polish cities”, recalls Anastazja Kumoter, who stayed in Tengeru for seven years: from 1942 to 1949 [1]. 

The Road to the East

The story of Anastasia, as similar to many others, is also – as each of them – unique. She lost her husband, Stefan, in September 1939. He was interned in Ostashkov – as she learned from a note from him on December 29. In the spring of the following year, he was murdered by the NKVD in Tver. Anastasia found out about it much later. She also faced the NKVD soldiers on April 13, 1940. After the search of the Kumoters’ house, they ordered Anastasia to pack up to 32 kilograms in luggage and get with it on a wagon. They laughed that he would go to her husband. What can you pack while being urged by soldiers with rifles without knowing where you will end up?

I stood helplessly crying. The escorting soldier prompted me to take underwear, bedding, warm clothes and food. (…) I did it all like an automaton. As a result, I took with me sheets, two pillows and a warm duvet, a blanket, warm clothes, as the soldier advised me, and food. I took 20 kilograms of wheat flour, a liter of honey, one bread, some tea, sugar, primus and a liter of kerosene .

Anastazja Kumoter’s memories [1]

They waited 2 days before a freight train headed east. Then they spent several days of arduous driving without food from the outside, water for washing or heating, until they reached Kazakhstan, where Anastasia spent the next months at the Voroshilov kolkhoz. She was making bricks, chaffing weeds and grinding grain several hours a day, without food and any payment. The change to the Makansówka sovkhoz did not turn out to be better. However, eventually she managed to find out about the Polish army that was being created in the Soviet lands. Thanks to a coincidence and desperation, she was among the people who managed to get out of the USSR [1].

It took the whole group a month to reach the town of Kagan in Uzbekistan. This time there were heating stoves in the freight cars and on the way she could buy fruit and vegetables. Unaccustomed to raw food, Anastasia almost paid for eating them with her life. Finally she found the Polish army and left the USSR with it. It wasn’t the end of her journey. She went from Uzbekistan to Tehran and then to Karachi in India (currently in Pakistan), and from there to port Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania. It was the penultimate stop – the next and the last one for the next few years was the camp in Tengeru [1].

A safe haven in Africa

Kazimierz Majewski, one of the heroes of the documentary “Africa of my childhood”, says: “We weren’t afraid but no one could imagine this Africa. How is life in this Africa? Where will we live? And the language? (…) And other people?” [3].

Poles in Africa were deployed in various British colonies of that time. In cooperation with the governors of Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda and Nyasa, the British government agreed to host Polish refugees during the war. The first group went to the port of Tanga in Tanganyika on August 27, 1942. The next one followed less than a month later, and so on for years. Camps for Poles were also established in Morogora, Kondoa, Ifund and Kidugali in Tanganyika and Masindi in Uganda [2].

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What did Anastazja, her neighbors from Dubno and other Polish families who ended up in Tenger see? Round houses with one window and one door, with pointed roofs covered with leaves. Baobabs, Mount Meru that loomed nearby.  

“Tengeru was the largest settlement in East Africa, there were more than 4,500 people. When we came here (…) we were charmed by this estate. Beautiful, round houses (…). When it comes to some more durable buildings, there was a church, a wooden hospital (…), barrack schools (…) – says Mieczysław Pożarski in the film [3]

In numerous memories of Poles who lived in Tengeru, there are pictures of well-organized days – work and school. Perhaps, for Anastasia, work was a way to break away from sad memories. In turn, Eugeniusz Szwajkowski recalls that the Polish leadership of the camp was worried about the demoralization of the unemployed compatriots [4]. It was the motivation to organise farms, weaving mills, numerous schools and kindergartens. In addition, everyone tried to create a small piece of Poland around their home. Carrots, parsley, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, sunflowers and flowers were planted in the gardens. 

As Krzysztof Majewski recalls: “We love Africa very much. Africa was very open to us. We were offered a normal and free life (…) ”[3].

The different faces of Poles in exile

It is known about the Siberians that they were largely interned for political reasons. Their wandering around the world and the harsh conditions they endured prove their strong will and add to the evidence of their heroism. But Filomena Bykowska recalls: “One should not forget, however, that not all were evacuated “angels”. People remained human, regardless of the circumstances in which they found themselves. Therefore, particularly “rebellious” refugees “for whom the discipline framework turned out to be too narrow” (criminals and prostitutes) were separated and placed in one of the refugee settlements in Africa [5].

It is about the Makindu camp, which had a reinforced guard, and it differed little from the other camps. The most “onerous” people who could not be dealt with by other settlements in East Africa or Rhodesia were taken there [6].

The support of the local population

While the government in London issued official residence permits for Poles in Africa, the local community contacted and supported refugees living in camps every day. Local tribes Waarusha, Chagga and Meru in Tanganyika not only provide building materials and food, but its representatives also helped in the construction of houses, worked on farms or were going to school together with Poles [7].

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For example, Anastazja Kumoter learned from the Tengerians to weave baskets. Piotr Łabyz and his friends learned to use the Swahili language, which was used in the bazaar at the gate of the camp. In turn, Mieczyslaw Pożarski remembers fans during the last match between the Poles and the British. He had the opportunity to lose ignominiously 5-1:”Maasai and Samburu went with bows, arrows (…), in the plumes, in their warlike costumes and beautifully us cheered. Because they knew we were Poles and English, and they didn’t like English people”[3].

After the war

Mieczysław Pożarski: “After the war, we were offered a trip from Tenger (…) to abroad. We were not offered to return to the country, because you know, a communist country and so on”. [3] Although the representatives of the People’s Republic insisted on repatriation of about 9,500 people from Tengeru end up in England to reunite military families. Other people were taken to the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Australia. Several hundred people remained in Tenger – until 2015, when the last Pole, Edward Wójtowicz died [2].

And yet, despite the disappointment of Yalta, many returned to the country. Out of longing, to found husbands and families or simply out of an inner need. About 20% of refugees living in Africa decided to return. Those who could not accept their separation from their country stayed forever in Africa. Mieczysław Pożarski recalls: “some people died from the disease, and others from nostalgia. They had some estates in Belarus, but they did not want to return to the country because they were afraid of communists. They died of nostalgia” [3]. 

Today, near the town of Arusha in northern Tanzania, you can visit the cemetery, where Poles who died in Tengeru were buried. There are the graves of three different denominations: Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish [8].

A history lesson to do

Jadwiga Teresa Stępień, who published the documentary on YouTube, “Africa of my childhood” portraying, among others, members of her family who lived in Tengeru during their childhood, wrote: “This is a drop of true history for the memory of all of us, including those who decide about today’s aid for refugees”.

Today, we have the opportunity to offer security, even for a short while, to people who need it most at this moment. A roof over their head, warm food and legal assistance. It takes so little to treat everyone with respect.

Julita Dudziak – a graduate of international relations and Far Eastern cultural studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Co-worker on SalamLab.pl
Translated by Mateusz Kubasiewicz – a politology student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, content creator of a Facebook and a Youtube page “O świecie” (facebook.com/oswiecie)

[1] Memoirs of Anastazja Kumoter on the basis of documents stored in the Archives of the KARTA Center: ref. AW / II / 1098, Anastazja Kumoter, Mój los – 575 dni na zesłaniu na Syberii i 7 lat w obozie Tengeru w Afryce; Szlaki Tułaczy,  http://szlakitulaczy.pl/anastazja-kumoter/

[2] Tengeru-mała ojczyzna Polaków w Afryce Wschodniej, Institute of National Remembrance, https://ofiary.ipn.gov.pl/ofi/z-archiwum-ipn/represje -sowieckie / 15096, Tengeru-mala-ojczyzna-Poles-in-East-Africa.html

[3] Documentary “Afryka mojego dzieciństwa”, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPzST8h8dBo

[4] Memories of Eugeniusz Szwajkowski, SYGN. AW / II / 441A, http://szlakitulaczy.pl/afryka/

[5] an fragment of the memoirs of Filomena Bykowska: Damian Karol Markowski, Armia Andersa: Epopeja polskich tułaczy. Po życie i wolność, “Kresy24.pl”, https://kresy24.pl/armia-andersa-cz-i-epopeja-polskich-tulaczy-po-zycie-i-wolnosc/?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=pmd_o0tQEEQQ3o8ed.hb2FM1lgU2WsuL179U2FM1lgU2FM1lgU2FM1lgU2FM1lgU2FM1L17 0-gqNtZGzNAlCjcnBszQjR

[6] Janusz Wróbel, Uchodźcy Polscy ze Związku Sowieckiego 1942-1950, Łódź 2003, p. 150

[7] Janusz Wróbel, ibid., P. 166

[8] Polish cemeteries in East Africa – Tengeru Cemetery, http: / /www.polskiecmentarzewafryce.up.krakow.pl/cmentarz/1

Photo by Elliot PARIS on Unsplash

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