With great expectations we were approaching the Black Continent. To my surprise Mombasa looked very European from a distance, with its tall white buildings and red tiled roofs. What a disappointment, I thought. But not for long, as we were passing on the train the most magnificent, dense jungle a few hours later. Slowly the train climbed up to a cooler plateau, running across open savanna, where the people looked less dark, more of coffee color, men of the warrior type wrapped in bright red blankets, and women with high collars of colorful beads around their necks. They were the Massai. On the horizon to the left was growing the outline of a great mountain with a while snowy cap on top - Kilimanjaro. At the foot of it the train stopped at a station and a group of orphans stepped down into the arms 11 nuns waiting for them. They were the Sisters of Nazareth, dressed in long black frocks and big white bonnets.
About halfway between Mombasa and Nairobi the train stopped at Makindu station where we were told to get off with the hand luggage and lead to a fenced-in camp, recently vacated by Italians prisoners of war. It consisted of nearly hundred light barracks with a big open space in the middle and a complex of brick building for the staff along one side. We were to rest there for one week, for an reason unknown to us. Inside the barracks were wooden benches with mattresses, but nothing else. Our luggage was kept locked on the train for the night and we prepared ourselves for our first night in Africa. Believing that the climate was hot we were looking forward to good night's sleep. In the morning I woke up finding myself under the mattress on bare slats. The night had turned cold and unconsciously I must have dived under the mattress.
The luggage was brought in by a number of ebony colored boys and we settled in for a temporary stay at the camp. Commandant was an old English colonel, who assured us that the barbed wire fence was for our protection. He was obsessed with hunting the wild animals and when we learned that he needed helpers to carry the ammunition boxes, I volunteered with two other scouts. Hearing that he did not tolerate women at his outings, I disguised myself as a boy, which was not difficult with my short hair and a scout uniform. I could not let pass such an opportunity! We set off in a jeep to the savanna and my heart was beating with excitement. My eyes were wide open in anticipation of wonderful sights and with difficulty I controlled my normally rather loud outbursts of delight.
Till now Africa existed only in my imagination, fed by books and films. Now it was real, with me in the midst of it! Zig zagging between huge trees with dense undergrowth we slowly emerged into more open space where we started to meet the animals. It was like a magnificent show. Among lonely acacias and some shrubs a herd of zebras was grazing, turning suddenly at the sound of the motor and showing us their striped rears. Monkeys were busy swinging from branch to branch, jumping from one tree to another, even over our heads to the other side of the track. Some giraffes, beautiful and majestic, broke into a run and passed us like a well rehearsed ballet with harmonious movements of their bodies, their delicate heads swaying on the long necks. There were groups of graceful gazelles, ever alert for impending danger. On the dead branches of a rugged tree vultures were sitting and surveying the site.
Suddenly the colonel stopped the car, pointing to a big herd of buffaloes in the distance. He stepped down, giving us a sign to follow him with the boxes and be quiet. He ran with such speed towards the buffaloes that it was impossible to keep up with him. Then we witnessed a phenomenal sight: few hundred meters away the huge animals formed a perfect quadrangle, with about thirty males on the outside with their homed heads turned towards us, the cows inside the quadrangle. They watched our hunter guiding through the savanna until, as on one command, the whole herd made a ninety degree turn and galloped in the direction of the nearest forest, with the colonel hurrying after them. In a few minutes all disappeared. It was a strange feeling to be left alone. We waited and were suddenly stricken with fear by the sight of an approaching rhinoceros. It was moving without hurry, looking like a blown up sausage on short legs with a projecting pointed muzzle - its precious horn. The boys were whispering panicky suggestions for escape, but we could not apply any, as there was no tree near us. We were not sure if the rhino could smell us out because of his very poor sight, so we stayed behind a bush and kept our fingers crossed. We were lucky, the massive animal continued its regular trot and passed us few meters away. We breathed a sigh of relief.
The colonel emerged from the woods in a very bad temper, empty handed. Later he was aiming at a gazelle, then at a zebra, without success. Without any meat for the camp kitchen, the return drive was in a somber mood. He never had such bad luck as today, only once, when a woman friend was in the party. I kept quiet feeling a little guilty and never again asked for the job of ammunition carder.
The camp cooks were feeding us amply, even without the meat. Their stews of pumpkin, maniok, aubergines and various beans were very tasty and the African fruits were delicious. A novelty were local mangos, small, round and very sweet, also papayas and passion fruit. Very popular were peanuts, which we were roasting ourselves. Their plantations were in the neighborhood.
The hunting expedition gave me a taste of the wild life outside the camp and aroused a great appetite for further explorations. Not far from Makindu was a Nature Reserve with an observation platform over a watering place, which was the center of nocturnal life. I obtained permission to take a group of girl-guides on a two day excursion. The condition was that a grown-up person should accompany us, to which my aunt eagerly agreed. After the necessary preparations and waiting for the full moon we left the camp loaded with pro-visions, torches, ropes, blankets and a detailed map, also with a code of behavior, featuring a long list of don'ts.
The path of about ten miles lead partly through savanna, then through giant grass known as Elephant Grass, finally through dense jungle with enormous trees and thick lianas. A few boy scouts joined us along the way and we all arrived at the tree with the platform in early afternoon. There was a large clearing around a fabulous baobab tree with the watering place next to it, all surrounded by a wall of elephant grass. From the tree was hanging a rope ladder on top of which was the platform with a balustrade, encircling the colossal trunk, around ten feet above the ground. The place looked deserted, the water hole the size of a big swimming pool was still, no sign of life. We made a short walk around, then cooked our meal over the fire, finished the day with the unusual singing around the fire and before the sun set we extinguished the fire, climbed the ladder and pulled it up. The platform was not big enough for all of us, designed for a maximum of twelve persons while we were sixteen. The boys decided to tie themselves with ropes to the big branches. Nobody was prepared to sleep that night and full of excitement we waited for the moon and listened to the noises.
It was not yet completely dark, although close to the equator night is falling nearly instantly with the setting sun, when we heard a roar by the tree. Two lions were circling it furiously, with their heads turned up towards us. They tried to climb the tree, scratching the trunk, but they did not manage to climb it and eventually walked away, resigned. When the moon was rising we lined up along the balustrade. The jungle was awaking with the sounds of birds and bigger animals. Soon a long chain of elephants, joined to each other by their trunks holding the tail of ones in front, was moving majestically towards the water place. The sight was breath taking. Some of them were big ones, but there were also small babies. After spending around half an hour drinking and spraying themselves or each other with water, they were making room for other animals. There must have been an established order, because without any congestion, one species followed another without any struggle.. After zebras came gazelles, then giraffes and around midnight rhinos. They were not in a friendly mood, and were fighting furiously in the middle of the hole, half submerged. This was quite a spectacle: with anger or jealousy they were attacking each other, making strange nasal noises and their homes poked the opponent's thick skin. They made big waves in the pool, the battle lasted for quite a while, till they left exhausted, each in a different direction. Later came some more elephants, the night passed as in a theater, with us watching a very unusual performance.
With sunrise we dropped the rope ladder and went down for a wash in water we had brought from the camp. While everybody was busy preparing breakfast I jumped into the pool, although the water was muddy, and full of some plants, but it was refreshing. May aunt screamed horrified: "What are you doing? There may be some snakes!" I don't see any, I answered, and got out. Well, it was thoughtless, I agreed, but I was half her age, after all, and that much more optimistic, also I knew the depth of the hole from the rhino's fight last night.
After breakfast we prepared games for the day, the girls split into two teams and went to collect samples of the bark of various trees, of grass, bones and animal droppings. In two hours they were to meet me at a marked spot, in a clearing not far from our base. The aunt stayed behind to rest after a sleepless night. The boys did their own exploration.
The commandant told me before leaving the camp, that during the day the animals were quite far away from the water hole and it should be safe. Waiting at the meeting point by a broken tree in the middle of the clearing, I was contemplating the recent events, when I heard the noise of movement through the grass at one side. Soon it opened and two Africans appeared running. They were spectacular! Faces painted in white patterns, their shining black bodies partly draped in an animal skin with a sort of feather helmet on their heads, in one hand an oval shaped, painted shield, a long spear in the other. Around their ankles were colorful beads. They were running rhythmically over the clearing and I watched them bewildered, but not afraid. I am sure they saw me, but they passed without giving a sign and disappeared again in the high wall of elephant grass.
Their behavior impressed me greatly. Was it an expression of ignorance or tolerance? They were impressively beautiful and did not mind to be admired, I thought. Never before or after did I see anything equal to them. I wondered about my girls, what would be their reaction, have they met these two Africans, were they frightened? They arrived half an hour later from their trip, happy with their findings, not mentioning anything unusual. We returned to our base singing, then followed lunch, siesta, and after the camp fire we climbed the rope ladder to the platform.
The second night was similar to the first one. The lions came and angrily circled the tree, then, after a drink at the water hole, disappeared. Again in turns came the elephants, zebras, and gazelles, followed by the rhinos at midnight, this time not fighting. That night we slept soundly and in the morning, after breakfast, we packed up and marched back to the camp. The girls were talking in a low voice, exchanging their impressions, stopping often to memorize a detail. My aunt did not have any complaints and the commandant was glad to see us sound and well.
The next day all families received information with regards to our last leg of a journey, which was to start soon. All our luggage was to he gathered on the main square, and be taken to the train by local boys on the morning of our departure. Returning from a last walk outside the camp, I saw above it a black cloud of smoke with red flames shooting in the sky. I ran madly to the barrack with pieces of tarred paper flying in all directions. I found my mother trying. helplessly to drag a chest with our belongings out of the burning barrack. Together we managed just in time and took it to the safety of the square.
In one hour all the walls and roofs had burnt down and the camp looked like a ghostly forest of smouldering wooden posts. The smell of melted tar was very oppressive and black soot was covering everything. Luckily there were no victims and we spent the last night in Makindu directly under the stars. The Africans were watching us through the barbed wire, some throwing bunches of bananas over the fence, some were crying and gesticulating.
With great relief we boarded the train the next morning. The railway line ran along the Reserve and I watched with nostalgia the ostriches that were racing the train on their long legs. In Nairobi station we had a few hours stop, which gave me a chance for a short walk into town and see the capital of Kenya. It was not enough to reach the center, I just recall an enormous turtle in the garden of a colonial residence.
We continued through Jinja on the equator to Kampala, capital of Uganda. Lorries took us from there to our final destination, the settlement of Koja on a conical, round peninsula on Lake Victoria. It looked very picturesque, little white houses encircling a small church at the top of a plateau. the settlement was built a few years before our arrival, and we were the last addition to a population of two thousand living there. We were allocated a house with a nice porch along the lowest lane with close proximity to the lagoon. The house consisted of three rooms, one of which had a separate entrance and was occupied by a very special lady, a beautician from Lvov, who was always alert with matters of skin complexion.
The interior was nicely furnished, there were beds, bedding, a table and a few chairs. Outside was a little hut for cooking. We were instructed to put the legs of the beds into tins filled with paraffin, to stop insects from crawling up the bed; also we always had to sleep under mosquito nets. Uncle Bronislaw with his ladies was lodging in a nice villa near the hospital.
The first few days were one great bliss. The air, the space and the lagoon with the powerful green jungle behind it was like the setting for an exotic film. We received our food rations and some pocket money, allowing us to start an independent existence. But within a few days most of us sensed a strange and irritating itching at the tips of our fingers, which was increasing every day and gave us sleepless nights. This was caused by tiny insects lying their eggs under the nails and nothing could be done before their incubation two weeks later. It was the customary welcoming treat for newcomers to Koja.
The settlement did not have a complete secondary school and for the last two years of "Lyceum" I went to much bigger Massindi with my cousin Krystina and two other girls. We were living in the poor version of an English boarding school, in a complex of houses at a small distance from the town. There were about a dozen of long dwellings, dormitories housing up to twenty girls each with a guardian. The central building looking like a huge barn was our dining hall.
The dormitory was subdivided by blanket screens into two person cubicles and I was sharing one with Krystina, who became my great friend. The food at the boarding school was on average very poor: bean soup, beans as main course, often with white maggots enriching it and for dessert a bean compote. I am sure there were some other, better dishes, but their taste faded away over the years.
The houses were set in pleasant, park like grounds, with green lawns and a number of charming papaya trees, with fruits the size and shape of rugby balls hanging around slender trunks below an umbrella of long leaves. The two years spent in Massindi were quiet dull and with few moments of excitement. One morning I woke up with the feeling of being in the air. Indeed, my bed was about half a meter above the floor, resting on top of a termite mound. The termites went through all my books kept under the bed and ate the paper, leaving only the strips with the metal clips. The other day there was a snake, quite a long one, but not poisonous.
One incident broke the lethargic atmosphere, when the village officials decided to remove all stray dogs from the school. We were worried about our shaggy, three legged Morus, a favorite of the girls. One day I saw two men dragging him towards the forest behind our dormitory. With Krystina I followed them on our fours and seeing the men returning, we ran immediately to the woods. Not far from its edge we saw our Morus hanging from a thick branch of baobab. Standing on the tips of my toes I managed to lift up his bottom with my fingers, waiting for Krystina to return with a knife and a stool. We cut the rope and carried the lifeless body to our dormitory, checked his heart which was beating, poured a little water through his clenched teeth and placed him under my bed. In the night I was awoken by a scratching noise and saw him trying to climb through the netting. Before leaving for school I shared my secret with the guardian, fed the dog and tied him to the leg of my bed with a string made of joined belts of our dressing gowns.
The school was a row of barracks on both sides of a wide alley, with individual classes in each of them. The walls were solid only half way up, with regularly spaced timber posts supporting the roof Few hours later the sound of laughter was heard from the class at the far end of the alley, then all the way down and all eyes turned towards the road. The sight was amusing: our Morus was walking slowly along, with a colorful tail behind him. He walked straight to my class and sat under my desk. The news of the miraculous recovery of a hanged dog spread quickly through the school and I was called to the office. I left it with a paper stating my official ownership of Morus and we lived happily till my graduation, nominating the following guardian of Morus.
A year later I visited Massinbi, where my brother Janusz was taking his final course. The bus from Kampala arrived late in the evening and while starting my way to the school, something heavy pushed me to the ground. It was Morus full of excitement. He was then under the care of a younger colleague. I often wondered what happened to Morus when the settlement was closed. One of the pleasant events in Massindi was the wedding of a girl of my class, exceptional Danuta with a face of Mary Magdalena, to our teacher of the Polish language, an ascetic figure with a poetic philosophical air about him.
After graduation I took the bus to Kampala before joining my mother in Koja and the first part of my journey is worth recording. The buses in Uganda had the first row of seats behind the driver reserved for non Africans, with an expanded metal screen separating them from the rest. First I was alone on the front bench, then sharing it with a middle aged Indian and his big bunch of bananas and a bundle wrapped in a blanket. We sat in silence while the rear of the bus resembled a bee hive. Suddenly, in the middle of the jungle, the bus stopped with smoke and flames coming out of the engine. Panic stricken, the Africans abandoned the bus, the driver hurried me, helping with my case. The passengers scattered with their belongings along the road and I sat close to a woman with a lot of children. The repairs lasted many hours and we reached Kampala around midnight.
The bus station was closed and deserted, except for some homeless and lame beggars. I had instructions to go to the house of Polish refugees, but I did not have a proper address and there was nobody to make any inquiries. I looked helplessly around, when I saw my Indian companion waving at me and with one finger pointing my case to a young African to pick it up. We left briskly and I was resolved to follow them. For quite a while we criss crossed the town, the Indian stopping frequently, knocking on gates, talking and giving something from his bundle. I started to feel suspicious and scary thoughts crossed my mind. Finally he stopped in front of a nice villa, pointing with a polite gesture to the plate bearing the name: Polish House. He knocked on the door waiting for it to open, the boy put down my case and they disappeared in the darkness before I had a chance to thank them. A sleepy woman came out, looked at me, took me in her arms and led me inside. She gave me a glass of beer and slowly my fear turned to joy.
The next day I went to Koja where I stayed with my mother for a week, before going to Tengery. The authorities organized in this biggest settlement of Polish refugees in Africa a teaching course for all the graduates. It was a very poor substitute for my dream of studies in Johannesburg, but it was a step towards independence. Tengeru was situated at the foot of Mount Kenya. I was pleased with the new surroundings and with meeting a number of friends from Teheran. The two month course was very intensive, so we had only few outings. A very interesting one took us to an old monastery on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Another to a beautiful crater lake, since the whole area has a volcanic past. There were pleasure boats crossing the lake, but I preferred to swim across. When I came out of the water I heard my friends screaming. What is the matter, I asked. "If only you could see your back, it is black with leeches!" Some were dropping, satisfied with my blood, others were shaken off by the friends, but I had no sensation of it.
After the course, on our return journey to Kampala, the girls were in a festive mood. except me, because it was the day of my twentieth birthday. I felt that youth was over and I was not ready for it. Upon arrival in Koja I learned that I had to teach three subjects in secondary
school: Latin, Mathematics and the Polish language. It was a great shock. For what sins was I punished, I asked myself. Did I have to pay for my liking of Ovidius, Virgilius and Seneca, or for my declamation in hexameters when I participated in school events? Mathematics had always been my Achilles' heel! Why was such a load thrown on my shoulders?
Sleepless nights followed for my preparations of the lessons. When I began classes children were addressing me "Pani Professor". To my explanation that I had no right to this title, which required a university degree, their reaction was disarming: "But we want to have a professor!". So I gave in.
From bad to worse: I was called by the seniors of the settlement to join the local Council. "We need a young mind, said my uncle. The atmosphere was very provincial and they felt stagnant. I was to read the bulletins on world news in the village hall. Still, the feeling of imprisonment was pretty strong and I looked for new distractions.
Lake Victoria was a great therapy and I was spending there most of my free time. Swimming in the lake was officially, forbidden, for the danger of bilharzia and crocodiles, and I was stressing this to my pupils. But I did not care. While swimming I was hiding my clothes and only my closest friends knew of my frivolity.
Of course, there were some unexpected incidents. After an afternoon swim, I climbed a small rock projecting near the shore and grabbed a substantial root, when by its serrated shape and rough texture I recognized a crocodile's tail. In panic I slid back into the water, clenching my fists in preparation of a fight. As I had heard from an expert the most effective tactic was a strong punch into its soft belly. But my crocodile did not move, it was asleep, as it was its siesta time and I knew that this was the safest time to be in the water.
On another occasion, returning from a swim I found two village guards over my hidden clothes and they bombarded me with questions: "Your name? How old are you? Where do you live? What school you go to?" Luckily they took me for a school girl. "You have to kill me first before you will have these details" I said, then quickly picked my things up and ran. Poor dears, they were old, and soon they gave up the chase. For the next few days I resisted temptation of going to the lake.
One Sunday morning a terrible accident happened in our lagoon. From the porch I was watching three boys swimming quite far from the shore, when suddenly, two of them turned back. The third one, who was ahead of the others, looked back and not seeing his companions was turning also, when I saw him flung into the air by the blow of a crocodile's tail and falling with outstretched arms straight into the open jaws of the reptile. It dragged the boy to the opposite side of the lagoon, submerging and surfacing at intervals. Then I saw a fountain of sand shooting up where the crocodile put its prey into storage, and that was the burial place of poor twelve year old Saliva, an orphan. It was horrible.
The boys, who had escaped, sounded the alarm and people came to the lake, lamenting. We were looking for the boat of the scouts, but as the "ana won" was on the other side of the village, we paddled in an old wreck to the place of the accident. We searched and dived, but could not find trace of the boy. The whole village was in mourning.
A few days later we were awoken in early morning by a great uproar at the end of our lagoon and we saw a crocodile making wild jumps out of the water. A strong rope was attached to a big tree near the shore and the other end of it came out of the jaws of the beast. As it tamed out, Mr. Kulka, the village shoemaker, had been determined to revenge young Saliva and set up a dead cat with a hook as a bait. We helped him to pull out the reptile, now dead, onto the grass. There he stood with a bottle of vodka, looking at his, over two meter long victim. He allowed himself and the beast to be photographed with the ladies of Koja. I have a photo of my mother sitting on it.
Krystina and Janusz returned from Masindi after their graduation and Janusz was working in the secretariat of the gymnasium, where he also was teaching. My younger brother Tadzik was a pupil in my class, struggling with Latin. All of us, including Busia, a cousin, were active in scouting. I was second in command of the girl guides, while Janusz was running the boys under the supervision of Ignac, an instructor delegated from headquarters in London. The chief of the girls was Lunia.
During the school holidays we had very exciting camping trips, on foot or by sail boat to some small island in the lake. We searched for flamingos or tortoises. Once we found such an enormous baobab tree, that fifteen girls could not embrace its trunk. Once a group of the older girls, group leaders, set off for a few days walking safari to Kampala and Entebbe. We were moving partly through the wilderness, partly along roads and when we were very tired we accepted a lift from a passing lorry, lying flat for not being seen, as it was forbidden to have any contacts with the natives.
We stopped at the catholic mission in Namiliango, where during the school break dormitories stood empty and we could use them for resting and the cure of our blistered feet. The Mission was set in a magnificent landscape, with big lawns between brick buildings of school, chapel, dining hall and library, with adjoining farm buildings and a kitchen garden behind. One sight is still vividly in my memory: two little African girls were crossing the lawn, when in the middle of it they met two white skinned nuns. The girls went down on their knees and kissed the outstretched hands of the nuns, staying on their knees until the nuns disappeared in the distance. The thought of slavery passed through my mind; was it right to keep the Africans in such a submissive state?
We did not have many contacts with the native population. My brothers went to the nearest village, but I never accompanied them. Often in the evenings we heard the tam-tams, also some terrifying stories, but in general we had an agreeable relationship with African authorities. Kabaka, the ruler of Uganda, let us have our scouting camp on his territory, he came to pay us a visit, watching with great fascination our very blond girl guide Olenka, who he called Oruk.
Talking about camps: one day we sailed in our "Panna Woda", Ignac, Lunia and me, in search for a suitable site. The weather was fine and in a gentle wind we were gliding smoothly across the lake. On the return trip the wind stopped completely. The boat was hardly moving and we took to little paddles, found at the bottom the boat. We were miles from Koja, where at night we saw the lights coming on. Eventually, at four in the morning, we dropped anchor in Koja. Lunia's mother was waiting at the pier, trembling, after pacing the shore most of the night full of anxiety. Hearing this I hurried across the village to our house and relaxed, finding Mama soundly asleep in bed. She opened her eyes on my noisy entrance. Were you worried? I asked. She smiled and said that she had a great confidence in me of being prudent, and anyway, worrying would not solve anything. She had a wonderfully philosophical mind and I adored her! The other day I went with younger cousin Busla and Tadzik in a small boat across the lagoon to collect some papyruses, when suddenly a young hippopotamus sprang up from the thicket and swam towards us. We turned the boat, but it kept swimming parallel to us. Fear seized us knowing the solidarity between the hippopotamus and crocodile. The first overturns the boat and the second attacks. But our hippo soon left us towards the papyrus groves.
Hippos were coming at night to the village field of cabbage between the lowest lane and the lagoon. The planting had to stop, because the cabbage was eaten and the site was full of round holes, more than half a meter deep, punched by the hippos' feet. We saw them often from our porch and heard their snorting, and laughed about their similarity to big cows.
The most popular local vegetable was maniok root, which replaced the potatoes. Grated, mixed with egg and fried, it tasted very much like potato pancakes. Fried bananas were also liked very much, as well as the compote made of different fruits. Besides the small and sweet banana with a little strawberry taste, there were oranges, rather small, greenish and not very juicy; marvelous papayas were delicious with lemon and sugar; guavas; pineapples, and the Rolls Royce of all fruit: the mango, not as we know it from todays supermarket, but smallish, yellow, fibrous and sweet, with a wee bit taste of pine resin.
We quickly adopted the local way of eating pineapples, walking with slices of this wonderful fruit cut in half in both hands and attacking it with our teeth from the center.
Local markets were very attractive events, the people being often more interesting than the merchandise. Women from Uganda were the nearest to Greek Caryatid, with their baskets of goods floating upon their heads. Wrapped in colorful shifts of cotton from the bust down, their beautiful round shoulders were exposed, supporting strong necks and well shaped, sensual heads.
I did not find much interest in the men. Quite a number were working in the settlement as sweepers of sandy lanes, drivers of village carts, or as domestic servants. My aunt had to keep the food cupboard under lock, because her "boy" was very keen on emptying it. She trained him well and for his good efforts he used to receive a big basket of provisions for his family. At least once a week local fishermen were bringing to the shore fresh lake fish of a great variety in shapes and sizes.
There were no newspapers, no radio or telephone in the village, so life went on with little news or entertainment. The religious customs were observed with devotion. The absence of men was our great misfortune and I was sorry for our mothers, still young, but lonely. There were rumors of sporadic liaisons with older school boys. Even the priests had to brave themselves from the attention of worshipping females.
The youth participated in all events of the settlement, often improvising quite nice shows. The culmination was a classic play by the eighteenth century writer Krasicki, a comedy "Sluby Panienskie" or "Maidens' Vows," parodying the backwardness of Sarmatian nobility. After a number of rehearsals we were nearing perfection. The actors were full of excitement, and Czeslawa, a great artist, prepared a beautiful stage set. Only one main actor, seventeen years old Janusz, (not my brother) was playing the role of Gustav not convincingly seductive. As I had no experience in the matters of courtship I asked Ignac to coach him. The performance was a success and for a few days the comedy was played to a full house in our village hall, with the actors reluctantly leaving the stage, wishing to rest in their skillfully made period costumes.
Because of my frequent contacts with the water of the lake I landed in hospital with bilharzia, a parasitic flat worm consuming the red blood cells. The effective treatment was a blood transfusion, which was not possible in our hospital, only in Nairobi and not accessible to refugees. My uncle decided to keep me in the hospital under constant supervision. I do not know what method he applied, but over a month later when the proportion of red to white cells improved, he discharged me, saying that my strong organism will do the rest by bringing my blood to normal. While in the hospital I had many visiting friends and once came an older lady, saying that she represented the village society with the request that I had to save the honor of Koja by taking care of Ignac and liberating him from a liaison with a married woman. How?, I asked, being ignorant in these matters. However,soon I was back to normal and returned to teaching.
Before bilharzia I had a strong attack of malaria, as had most of the community. The lake was an excellent breeding ground for mosquitos and it was beyond us to eliminate them.
One day I went with the school on an all day excursion to Kampala. We visited the museum and the university, where in the art department I was impressed by very beautiful wood and stone carvings. Other girls ran to the shops to buy their first lipstick and to look at the shop windows. I bought a watch a big "Cyma" more suitable for a man, but I wanted one which I could read easily in the darkness.
I kept in touch with some of my friends from Massindi and heard their stories of romance by mail. I also had my hero, who was sending me almost daily reports from Monte Cassino. We had lived in the same house in Grodno before the war, and his father with the army in the Middle East, was sending me parcels with nice fabrics. He was treating me as his future daughter in law. So I thrived on my imaginations until the day when a letter arrived from Richard with a photo of a beautiful girl, his fiance. The earth shook under my feet and the sun blackened, but after the war, during my first visit to Poland I met him unexpectedly and thanked providence! He was not at all the ideal man of my dreams.
Early in 1948 a rum our spread about the closure of refugee centers and my mother received a call to the office. She had to prepare for joining her husband in England with her sons, but excluding me, because I was over the limit age of twenty one. We had been in constant correspondence with father and knew that at the end of the war he was stationed in Scotland. Later he was finishing his course in a Polish faculty of law in Oxford. I wanted very much to return to Poland, but my Poland of Wilno, Grodno, Lida and Oszmania was now part of the USSR. I had no home. What an irony, I thought, that England who was playing a part in giving Poland to Stalin was now accepting Polish ex servicemen and thousands of civilians. Was it in recognition of the bravery of our pilots, sailors and soldiers on all fronts on the side of the Allies?.
I accompanied my mother and brothers to the railway station at Mukono and shed many bitter tears bidding them goodbye. They departed for Mombasa and returning to the empty house I felt miserable, like an abandoned orphan. The next day however, with a sensation of independence and freedom, I took possession of myself. I went to Kampala to look at it with the eyes of an adult; it was magic. The town was swarming with Indians. The shops, the banks, the restaurants were in their hands, the poor Africans were acting as servants. In a shop of the well known "Bata" factory I bought a pair of sandals and continued along streets with dilapidated wooden shacks, full of thin undernourished children with big stomachs and bare feet. Then I found a rather nice park and finished my walk in a splendid cathedral.
Life in Koja continued with its diminished population. Uncle Bronislaw with his family was going to stay at the hospital till its final liquidation, after which he planned to settle in Canada. Two weeks later I received instructions to be ready, like the rest of my family, to go to England. On the deck of M.S Carnavon Castel at the pier of Mombasa, we bumped into each other! It was a most memorable moment. Maybe my group was added because the ship was not fully loaded, anyway it was fantastic to be together. The boat was very different from the one which had brought us four years earlier to Africa, it was luxurious!
Walking along the deck, I watched Mombasa disappearing in the setting sun and recalled the memories of my four years in Africa. With nostalgia I was thinking about magnificent lake Victoria, with its silvery surface in the morning, deep blue during the day and reddish in the setting sun. During storms it was mounting big waves, lightning was striking its surface, particularly spectacular at night. I loved a tropical rain, dancing in it in my tennis shoes. I remembered the colonies of pelicans marching on their long legs over the shallow water, the fabulous flora and wildlife. Nevertheless, I had no regrets leaving the black continent, I rather felt relief. I wanted badly to return to Europe and was full of expectations.
The journey started in perfect weather. The sea was calm. We, the girl guides had various meetings, with games, singing and watching the dolphins performing in front of the ship. Some girls were putting flowers in their nicely arranged hair and flirted with the crew, while their mothers were relaxing on the decks. The entry to the Red Sea near Aden is remembered as one of the hottest spots I have ever experienced. We passed through the Canal of Suez, most interesting with its contrasting banks of green fields and palm trees on the left and the rocky desert of the Sinai to the right. I felt pretty close to mysterious St. Catherine monastery. Masts of sunken ships were testimony to the war and when we reached Alexandria the climate changed abruptly. The temperature dropped drastically, it was impossible to stand on the deck. We did not have warm clothes and it was the end of February. Somehow some rolls of beige flannel appeared on ship and in a special room turned into a dress making parlour, the ladies started producing coats, looking like overalls.
Fortunately none of my family required such a garment, it made everybody look like members of the Chinese army, but they helped a great deal when we were passing the Rock of Gibraltar. The Bay of Biscay was very rough and most passengers were lying flat. On approach to Southampton everybody was on deck looking towards the final stage of our wanderings through the world for nearly ten years.
Created on ... September 27, 2003 by Pierre Ratcliffe