News about the proposed arrival of Afghan refugees has dominated Uganda’s mainstream and social media alike since it was announced that the government was in talks with the United States to temporarily host people fleeing the troubled Asian country.
The discussions rotate about Uganda’s foreign policies, refugee policies, the anticipated benefits of hosting the refugees and on a lighter note, Ugandan men gearing up to marry Afghan women.
According to available information, Uganda will host the Afghan refugees for a period of about three months. Unlike other refugees in the country, the US government will fund the presence of the Afghans in Uganda.
However, Afghans will not be the first group of people to travel from a different continent to seek refuge in Uganda.
7000 Polish refugees
In 1940 up to a million Polish nationals were rounded up and exiled when Germany and the Soviet Union annexed large parts of Poland. Between 1942 and 1944, Uganda offered over 7,000 Polish refugees mainly women and children, who were being persecuted by the Soviets and the Nazi Germany sanctuary after getting amnesty from forced labour camps deep in Siberia.
Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Zambia were the other British territories in East and Central Africa where the Polish nationals settled. Historian and author, Prof Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo, says although the Poles were not the first immigrants to Uganda, they are certainly the first group of refugees where locals had little or no say in their relocation to the country because they were brought by the then British protectorate government.
Records indicate that after arrival, the Polish refugees were resettled in two camps, Nyabyeya in Masindi district at the edge of the tropical Budongo forest and Mpunge, a peninsula of Lake Victoria in present-day Mukono district. After four years, most of the refugees were resettled in Britain, Canada and Australia.
Prof Lunyiigo says that at the time the polish refugees arrived, they were about 2000 Europeans living in Uganda. He says that although the number of Polish refugees was high, their stay was rather quiet. The British never wanted the refugees to mix with the local population, which explains why they decided to set up their camps in very remote and secluded areas.
To create the Nyabyeya settlement, for instance, the protectorate government identified a place some 30 kilometres east of Lake Albert. The government recruited young men from Bunyoro to clear part of Budongo forest to create space for the resettlement camp. Temporary mud and grass-thatched huts were erected to shelter at least 3,600 Poles.
The camp at Mpunge had a much better scenic view; covering an area measuring 700 acres overlooking Lake Victoria. But the nearby papyrus swamps and dense forests made it difficult for the refugees to survive mosquitoes and tsetse fly bites.
From the isolated camps, however, the Poles could access whatever service they needed. The colonial government quickly established schools and health centres for them. In a 1993 paper titled; “Uganda and refugee problems”, Prof Lunyiigo points out that the British never wanted the locals to interact with the Poles so as to preserve the superiority narrative of the Caucasian race.
Lunyiigo says because the British still wanted to maintain the narration of white man supremacy, they never wanted Africans (Ugandans) to see the sad life and sorry life that the resettled refugees were going through in camps.
Unfortunately, for the colonial government, the superiority of the Caucasians was badly dented whenever the Poles got the opportunity to do so to the bewilderment and disgust of the British authorities. With ignorance of the kind of Afghans, that might be coming to Uganda, many locals are making light jokes, saying they would happily welcome them to the country for social reasons.
Prof Lunyiigo says this phenomenon is not strange and has been the way of Ugandans since the times of the Polish refugees. “It is sort of a joke. We know Ugandans are good at humour and social media has spiced it up. Of course, their jokes are oblivious; they don’t know the kind of refugees who are coming. But, we can’t dismiss this entirely. For a fact, if Afghans ever come to Uganda-as it is said, not all of them will be relocated and during their stay, you cannot rule out possible interaction between them and the locals,” he said
Lunyiigo notes that Polish refugees, who were considered inferior to fellow whites, saw Africans simply as other human beings, adding that their loneliness as refugees was mitigated by their human and sometimes intimate contact with Africans.
For instance, in February 1944, the camp commandant in Mukono reported to his superiors specific incidents where Polish women had intercourse with Africans. This was reportedly between policemen deployed on patrol and guard duty.
“Polish blood flows amongst some Ugandans still living, the result of the illicit unions,” the professor said. He said that although the subject was not part of his research then, he encountered several descendants of the Polish in both Mukono and Masindi districts and some parts of Kampala.
Lunyiigo argues that Africans also liked the Poles since they were non-racists and the relationship between these two groups demystified “whiteness” and gave locals courage to demand their lost freedom.
Although the Polish left, their descendants have kept strong ties with the country by building monuments and preserving some of the things they used while in Uganda. In 2022, the Poles will be marking 80 years since their relatives arrived in Uganda.