Warsaw in the 1980’s Through African Eyes

AiW Guest Mamadou Diouf

AiW Guest Katarzyna Kubin continues her series examining the relationship between Africa and Eastern/Central Europe, with this guest piece by Mamadou Diouf. 

leopold_senghor

Léopold Sédar Senghor addressing the United Nations General Assembly, 1961 (source: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leopold-Senghor)

I have lived in Warsaw for over thirty years, but I still remember January 1983. There was an on-going strike at the University in Dakar (today: the Cheikh Anta Diop University). Problems in the educational system were being resolved by force in Senegal after May 1968, when student strikes rocked the world. In the predominantly rural Senegal, where labour unions were weak, students at the one university, based in the capital, would lead the way in addressing not only issues of education but all kinds of national problems.

I had read in the newspaper that the government was offering scholarships for studies in Eastern Bloc countries. Socialist ideology was appealing to people in the newly formed African countries because Eastern Europe did not have a history of colonialism. During United Nations meetings, Eastern Bloc countries would openly criticize capitalism. Among many in Africa, such attitudes were positively looked upon while governments was eager to receive aid.

lach-walesa_1983

Lech Wałęsa at the Gdańsk Shipyard with Solidarity flag in background, 1988 (source: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lech-Walesa)

What I knew about Poland then was that Maria Skłodowska Curie was born in Warsaw (physics and chemistry textbook included biographical details of famous scientists). I knew about Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity movement, about General Jaruzelski, Martial Law and the tanks on the streets in 1981 – images of all this was shown on local television. There was a general affection for Poles in Senegal at the time. Wałęsa, the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was presented as a hero in the media – maybe that is why I carried a photo of him in my wallet. Senegal’s president at the time was Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Catholic, so even though Pope John Paul II came to Senegal only in 1992, he was popular in this majority Muslim country (over 90%) throughout his pontificate.

So I was among those who received a government scholarship to study in Poland. There was no competition, I just submitted an application and proof of my results from the final two years of high school. A committee in the Ministry of Education awarded scholarships to young people who had high enough results. Senegalese students had been studying in Poland since the 1970’s. I did not benefit from any particular preparation or orientation before departure for Poland, but I found out from my cousin that one of the Senegalese students already studying in Poland had come home to Dakar for the summer holidays. I met him at his house and we spent a long time talking about his experience. He had also received a government scholarship, several years earlier than me, and was studying in the city of Poznań. I remember that he assured me that Polish university education was at a good level.

I landed at the Warsaw airport, Okęcie, in late September 1983. I traveled directly to the School of Polish for Foreigner Students, based at the local university in the city of Łódź. I remember seeing signs on the street with the letter combination “szcz,” so common in Polish words, and wondering: “How do I read that?” I admit the People’s Republic of Poland seemed exotic to me: the PEWEX hard currency shops, the black market and the currency traders, grocery shops with empty shelves, endless queues to buy basic goods, coupons as an allowance for food and basic necessities.

But the School of Polish turned out to be a great place to learn the new language. Students were assigned to groups depending on their specialization (e.g. medicine, agriculture, engineering, the humanities). I was studying veterinary medicine so I was assigned to be with the students specializing in agriculture, which included Kenyans, Zambians, Panamanians and Guyanese. Even though social diversity was not new for me – over 20 different ethnic groups exist in Senegal, people practice Islam, Catholicism and animist religions; among the Serer, my ethnic origin, many practice Catholicism, but animist traditions remain important – still it was the first time for me to be in such an international context. In Łódź, we were all about 20 years old and excited about meeting each other. I don’t know if the governments of all of the countries represented among the students cooperated with Poland. Some students were beneficiaries of government scholarships like mine, but even among the five Senegalese students, three had received scholarships from the International Student Office in Prague, which supported students who were members of leftist political parties around the world. Until then, I did not know that such an institution existed in the Soviet Bloc, but it can be likened to today’s Erasmus Program.

The multilingual reality of the school in Łódź was incredible. Languages from around the world mingled in university auditoriums, the dining hall, the dormitories, located in the charmingly named [Patrice] Lumumba Student Residencies. No one talked about “integration” in Poland then, we were simply integrated by the Polish language. The largest groups of students came from Vietnam, Iraq and Nigeria. The dormitory reserved for foreign students, Number XIII, was a real laboratory for integration. There was no possibility at that time in Poland to go out and enjoy an international community or cuisine. We would cook together, all the world’s spices and scents dancing together in the dorm, tempting the palate. We would play football, watch the evening television programs, all together.

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Book cover: Africa in Warsaw: the History of the African Diaspora on the Vistula (eds. M. Diouf and P. Średziński, 2010)

The African Diaspora in Poland at that time was made up only of students. How many were we? It is difficult to say exactly. Every year about five or six Senegalese would arrive to Poland. We studied in universities based in large cities across the country: Warsaw, Cracow, Gdańsk, Wrocław, Poznań, Łódź. We all knew each other and had good relations. We organized an annual conference on Senegalese Independence Day (4 April) in Warsaw and we would celebrate New Year’s Eve together in Poznań or Gdańsk. It may seem strange that we organized such “conferences,” but those gatherings helped us stay in contact and allowed us to exchange about every-day problems, relations with the Moscow Embassy, but we also debated African politics and news from the continent. We would collect our opinions and send them as official statements to the government in Senegal.

During that period, all the foreign students in a given city would know each other well. When a new student would arrive at university to start studies, after completing the Polish language course in Łódź, older students would help with formalities at the Government Office for Foreigners – Passport Bureau, with securing a room in the dormitory, etc. This kind of support was important, especially at the beginning – one year of intensive Polish was not always enough to ensure that students could keep up with everything, especially in their studies. Those who studied in a field where no other foreign students were enrolled definitely had it tougher.

african-students-today-in-central-warsaw

African Students today in central Warsaw (source: http://afryka.org/?Gallery=106)

Today, among foreigners who come to Poland are not just students; most migrants come for economic reasons. A growing number of private universities offer the possibility to study in English. Among the African Diaspora, people come for professional reasons (e.g. to join football clubs), and many Africans have settled here and have families. On the one hand, the number of Africans in Poland is growing and their life-styles are more diverse, but on the other hand, it is more difficult to maintain a sense of community today than it was when I first arrived.

Translated from Polish by: K. Kubin

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This piece is part of a series curated by Katarzyna Kubin for Africa in Words.

Want to know more?

img_3057_mamadou_bykaja_v1Mamadou Diouf Born in Senegal in 1962 and residing in Warsaw for over 33 years. Trained as a veterinary doctor, but professionally involved in music and cultural production. Co-founder of the Foundation “Africa Another Way,” musician, radio presenter on Polish Radio “Radio dla Ciebie”. Authored and co-authored numerous publications, including: “A Walking Guide to African Warsaw”, “A Small Book about Racism” for children, Africa in Warsaw: the History of the African Diaspora on the Vistula (eds. M. Diouf and P. Średziński, 2010). Regularly contributes to the blog afryka.org, commenting on current events in Poland with a focus on issues affecting the African community. Coordinates cultural events in the Multicultural Centre in Warsaw.



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  1. Warszawa 80’ oczyma Afrykanina, autor: Mamadou Diouf | Głosy z Peryferii

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