Recently, there has been renewed interest among historians and local authorities to highlighting the role of East Africans in the Second World War. Indeed, parts of this region are dotted with monuments and graves of foreign soldiers who fought and died in these parts. It is no longer just a footnote in history.
Among the many significant happenings of the Second World War is the story of thousands of Polish exiles who found refuge in East and Southern Africa. Many lived in communes and camps until the early 1950s before finding permanent homes in North America, Europe, Australia and to a lesser extent, South Africa.
Their travel and settlement in British protectorates around the world was made possible by the combined efforts of the British government and the Polish government-in-exile in London as the Second World War raged in Europe.
Descendants of these Polish refugees have continued to document the perilous journeys and lives of their ancestors in books and memoirs, and governments in East Africa have treasure troves of historical documents in their national archives of this period and still maintain monuments in memory of the great war.
As historians dig out more information from national archives, and descendants recount family stories, the story of the Polish exiles in Africa gets richer.
The first group of exiles arrived in Africa in late 1942-44. Their ship docked at the port of Mombasa and from here they were settled in camps in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and Zambia and Zimbabwe (formerly Northern and Southern Rhodesia).
There were 22 different camps that housed 13,000-19,000 Polish exiles spread out across East and Southern Africa, some with more than 6,000 people, others with just a handful of families. Children were the vast majority of the refugees.
It was in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where the exiles got their first glimpse of Africans close up.
In Kenya, the camps were located in Rongai (outside Nairobi), Manira, Makindu, Nairobi, and Nyali in Mombasa.
Roma J. Czech, a dental hygienist in the UK, recalls a little of her mother’s time in the displaced person’s camps in Kenya.
“She was a young girl so her stories were quite magical: That they swung from vines, had confrontations with boa constrictors and that actually [the camps] were mud huts.” Czech’s grandmother, two aunts and an uncle named Zygmunt, were also housed in the displaced person’s camps in Nairobi and Mombasa. The family later immigrated to Canada via Iran and Italy.
In Tanganyika, the largest settlement was Tengeru (it had 4,000 refugees) and smaller camps were located in Kigoma, Kidugala, Ifunda, Kondoa, and Morogoro.