Northern Poles

Written By: The Lowdown - Jul• 01•13

small cover july 2013

The Polish Refugees of Mbala
By Mary Mbewe

The pay cheque is definitely not one of the perks of working for a museum. But there are many other perks, not the least of which is getting to visit and find out about places that hold great historical and heritage value. Due to the poorly developed heritage management industry in Zambia, these places are mostly unknown to many people including (or especially!) locals. Since I started working for Moto Moto Museum in 2006, I have had the pleasure of visiting a number of First World War sites around Mbala. These include First World War fortifications built by British soldiers during the First World War, trenches at Kaseshya near the Zambian border with Tanzania, dug by British soldiers as part of the trench warfare that characterised the First World War and other sites at Mwamba or in the heart of Mbala town. While most of these sites are scenic, I truly appreciate them for their intrinsic value as part of human history.

This is definitely true of the Second World War Polish refugee camp site that is located about 1.5 kilometres east of Mbala town. Found there are the remains of the camp which was home to Polish refugees from 1943 to 1945. The site is located along a road fittingly called Little Poland Road and in a residential area called Little Poland. The only evidence that the site played a role in the Second World War are the remains of the foundations of the buildings that were built at the site, evidence of a grave located about 500 metres from the remains of the foundations and remains of small burnt pan bricks some distance away from the grave site. The remains of the foundations are located at Pastor Kaite’s residence. He was one of the first residents of Little Poland and he told me that he specifically avoided building on the foundations in order to preserve them. The grave is engraved with an eagle which is a Polish national symbol as while as engravings in Polish which translated means “Honour and Fatherland”, a Polish nationalist slogan which must have been common among the Polish in the diaspora.

So how did Polish refugees find themselves in one of the remotest districts of Zambia? During the Second World War thousands of Polish citizens were deported from Poland by Russia and Germany. Exterminations, deportations and imprisonment of Polish citizens were some of the methods employed by Russia to completely suppress the Polish political and socio-cultural identity. Polish deportees were taken to labour camps in Russia and Siberia, were they were forced into slave labour under dreadful living conditions. Thousands of Poles died from hunger, from the harsh climate and disease. But in July 1941, with the signing of the Polish-Soviet pact, thousand of Poles from the Soviet Union were released. With the help of Britain and America they were sent to refugee camps scattered around the world. Africa provided a safe haven for over 18,000 Polish refugees.

In Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia), Polish refugee camps were located at Abercorn (Mbala), Fort Jameson (Chipata), Livingstone, Lusaka and Bwana M’kubwa in Ndola. Between 13 August 1943 and 15 September 1943, 561 Polish immigrants arrived in Mbala. Of these 561 Polish citizens, 82 were men (usually old or sick men as the able bodied were fighting in Europe), 242 were women, 216 were children and 21 were teenagers.

The Polish refugee camp at Mbala consisted of six sections of one roomed houses with thatched roofs, a large kitchen, hospital, a Catholic church, laundry area with concrete bath tubs, a farm which supplied part of the food for the settlement and a Catholic Community Centre where social functions were held. Considering the number of people that the settlement housed, the camp must have occupied a considerable area.

In 2010, Moto Moto Museum staff, led by Museum Archeologist Liwyali Mushokabanji carried out a rescue excavation on the site. The excavation was prompted by the chance finding of hoes by contractors building a house within the vicinity of the site. Only a portion of the site that was threatened by the construction of the house was excavated. From this two day rescue excavation, 198 artifacts were excavated and these are now housed at Moto Moto Museum for preservation and further study. The excavated artifacts which were found at a depth of about 3 metres consist of numerous building tools such as shovels and picks, lead to the conclusion that they must have been used for the construction of the settlement. Retrospectively, the findings give very little insight into the socio-cultural life of the camp, raising the necessity for further study of the site.

The site itself is an important part of international, national and, in the case of Mbala, local history. It has the potential to contribute to the development of Mbala’s and Zambia’s Heritage tourism. On the other hand, very few people including locals know about the existence of this important historic site. The site is not protected and there is no signpost pointing to the site. The National Heritage Conservation Commission under whom such sites fall has not done much to publicise or protect the site. Additionally, human activities such as the construction of houses and natural factors such as erosion and the growth of vegetation are major threats to the continued existence of the site. The construction of houses has been the major threat to the site and this has led to the destruction of major portions of the site, with building foundations and possibly graves being lost forever. Reports have been received of whole structures being on the site before construction of the houses commenced and it is most distressing to hear of them being destroyed. It is clear that houses have been built on places where there were remains even when these remains were visible. Pastor Kaite informed the writer that he deliberately did not destroy the foundations on his plot in order to preserve them. The little pockets of the remains of the site that this article has highlighted are threatened by total destruction due to human activities.

Moto Moto Museum has put on an exhibition at the Polish site, displaying pictures of the site and highlighting the site as well as threats to the site. Some of the artifacts excavated from the site are also exhibit. The Museum hopes that the exhibition will educate the residents of Mbala and particularly those on the site that this is part of Mbala’s history and heritage as well as the importance of preserving the site for the education and enjoyment of all Mbala residents as well as tourists.

Mary Mbewe is the Assistant Keeper of History at Moto Moto Museum, Mbala

Editor’s comment: It is very distressing that sites such as the Polish Refugee Camp are being lost through the disinterest of Government and quasi-Government bodies which have the responsibility for preserving Zambia’s heritage sites for future generations. We urgently appeal to Mbala District Council to consider suspending all building operations on this site and to the National Heritage Conservation Commission to have this site declared a National Heritage site. As Confucious said “Study the past if you would define the future.”

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton

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