POLISH PRESENCE IN SIERRA LEONE: MINIMAL BUT MEANINGFUL – A PERSONAL AND INTELLECTUAL PERSPECTIVE

Delivered By Sheka Tarawalie at the 12th Annual International April Conference Organised by the Polish University Abroad In London on 9th April 2022_

INTRO

Madam moderator, distinguished academics, ladies and gentlemen

When the Nazis (later followed by the Soviets) overran Poland in 1939, triggering the Second World War, the last thing the Germans expected was the survival of that nation and its people as an entity – not least a Polish University Abroad in London where we are meeting today to commemorate resilience, innovation and the ability of the human spirit to recreate and develop itself after a tragedy. One thing I’m absolutely sure of is that, those Aryan-race superiority-wishing Nazis would never have expected an African – particularly black Africans – to ever collaborate with the Polish in an academic exercise. But here we are!

That is why I am humbled by the fact that this unique university (which itself is a by-product of the War; meaning, ironically, that good things can come out of the ashes of war – which should serve as a consolation to Ukraine and all war-ravaged places at this time) has for this year’s Annual International April Conference, in memory of the last Polish President in exile, shifted the focus on the African continent. And what an exciting theme: ‘Through the Centuries: Chronicles of Polish Presence on the African Continent’, with the overall original objective being ‘to highlight the contributions of Poles to culture, art and science in the world’. In that regard, I have titled my presentation: ‘Polish Presence in Sierra Leone: Minimal but Meaningful – A Personal and Intellectual Perspective’.

POLAND AND SIERRA LEONE: WAR HISTORIES AND SHARED EXPERIENCE

My country, Sierra Leone, suffered under the terror of a brutal civil war in the 1990s which, though certainly not comparable to the horrors of the Second World War, has no less dehumanising consequences. The fact that I am here speaking to you today – having survived the Sierra Leone war – is a testament to the same qualities of the capacity of the human spirit to defeat the temporary forces of evil.

And it is worth mentioning that Poland played an appreciable role in Sierra Leone’s post-war efforts, with Polish experts bringing their post-World-War experiences at the table through a multi-national UN peacekeeping mission, which helped Sierra Leone to stand on its feet again.

EARLIEST POSSIBLE RELATIONS: RENOWNED POLISH WRITER JOSEPH CONRAD’S MENTIONING OF SIERRA LEONE IN ‘AN OUTPOST OF PROGRESS’

But long before that, there had been Polish influence on Sierra Leone in the area where it arguably mattered most – in the field of education.

An incredibly fascinating fact is that the earliest possible Polish-Sierra Leone relationship can be traced to world-renown Polish writer, Joseph Conrad (Polish name – Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski before he naturalised as a British). In one of his earliest writings, a short story titled ‘An Outpost of Progress’ (published in 1897), Conrad actually mentioned Sierra Leone – some researchers believe it was the first story for which he was paid by a national magazine.

What is glaring in that story is that the Sierra Leonean, Henry Price, is a very central, if not the central, character. When you read it, from the opening paragraph you will find out that Conrad was filled with, if not gripped by, admiration for Price. And never mind which conclusion you come to at the end about Price’s character, you the reader will not change your mind as to the Sierra Leonean’s centrality in the author’s thinking. If you come to the conclusion that the main theme of the story is about a Sierra Leonean’s contacts with the outside world, you would not be far from the truth.

Please permit me to quote from the opening paragraph of ‘An Outpost of Progress’ and you will see how Conrad lavishes description on Price as against the two white characters preceding him, his supposed bosses:

“There were two white men in charge of the trading station. Kayerts the chief, was short and fat. Carlier, the assistant, was tall, with a large head and a very broad trunk perched upon a long pair of thin legs. The third man on the staff was a Sierra Leone nigger [it should be noted that the use of the term ‘nigger’ was not pejorative in this context, but was used to differentiate between the natives and a European-style educated black African], who maintained that his name was Henry Price. However, for some reason or other, the natives down the river had given him the name Makola, and it stuck with him through all his wanderings about the country. He spoke English and French with a warbling accent, wrote a beautiful hand, understood book-keeping…”

So you see, from the very opening paragraph, the focus of the story immediately drifts to the Sierra Leonean. With just a sentence each to the bosses, they seemed to be more or less used to herald the Sierra Leonean on whom so many sentences are devoted – and counting, if you continue reading.

Perhaps more fascinating is the fact that Conrad himself in 1906 (at the peak of his writing career) stated that ‘An Outpost of Progress’, the story in which he mentioned Sierra Leone, was his favourite. He told the ‘Grand Magazine’ in a cover letter titled ‘ My Best Story and Why I think So’, that: “This story, for which I confess a preference, was difficult to write, not because of what I had to write, but of what I had firmly made up my mind not to write into it… I aimed at a scrupulous unity of tone, and it seems to me that I have attained it.”

Just a 28-page story, but it has reverberated through intellectual circles across the globe. It has to be mentioned any time a full literary appreciation of Conrad’s more-popular much-acclaimed novel or novella, ‘Heart of Darkness’, is critiqued. Conrad himself saw the Sierra Leone story, I mean ‘An Outpost of Progress’, as a precursor to, or the elder brother of, ‘Heart of Darkness’ by making the comparison when referring to the latter: “It is a story as much as my ‘Outpost’ was, but, so to speak, takes in more – is a little wider – is less concentrated on individuals.” He went further to light-heartedly state that: “’An Outpost of Progress’ is the lightest part of the loot I carried off from Central Africa, the main portion being of course ‘The Heart of Darkness’.”

But whatever it is, devoid of the black-or-white debate, my main takeaway from ‘An Outpost of Progress’ is that, at such a time in world history (in the nineteenth century), Sierra Leone was already known to the outside world as an educated country through Henry Price (or Makola).

And perhaps no one puts that fact into perspective better than one of Conrad’s acclaimed biographers, Robert Hampson, who is a Research Fellow at the University of London’s Institute for English Studies and Chair of the Joseph Conrad Society in the UK. In his 2020-published book, simply titled ‘Joseph Conrad’, Hampson explains “the pivotal role of Henry Price and Conrad’s deliberate choice of Sierra Leone as Price’s home country.”

Please indulge me to quote from Hampson’s biography of Conrad:

“Sierra Leone has a unique history. In 1787, the British had established a settlement in the country for the Black Poor of London, mostly African Americans who (in exchange for their freedom) had fought on the British side in the American War of Independence and had moved to England when the British lost… Over the next decades, Sierra Leone was to turn into an African centre of European education. In 1827, Fourah Bay College (now the oldest university in West Africa) was founded… Thus, by the end of the century, Sierra Leone had an established westernised black middle class. However, when the British annexed the territory as the Sierra Leone protectorate in 1896, following the Berlin Conference, [Sierra Leoneans] were pushed out of their posts and replaced by British employees. This led to a diaspora of educated Sierra Leoneans to other countries in Africa. Henry Price is an early example of this diaspora…”

And we don’t need to stretch our imagination to note that Conrad was himself, like his Sierra Leonean character, a diaspora. Because Conrad, as we all would know, was born in exile in Berdichiv, present-day Ukraine under Soviet occupation, and would effectively become a bona fide diaspora as a British citizen.

And indeed Conrad became influential in Sierra Leone when Fourah Bay College (which at one point earned the epithet of ‘the Athens of West Africa’) was quick to incorporate his writings into its English Literature curriculum. Spanning several decades, therefore, many Sierra Leonean intellectuals have had their academic horizons shaped, more or less, by this fine writer.

Conrad’s themes on slavery and colonialism, with plots set on the African continent, made his works inevitably integral in intellectual debates and literary criticism while at the same time inspiring many. It is therefore refreshing to note that Conrad inspired the English author, Graham Greene, whose successful novel, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (1948), was actually set in Sierra Leone. Apparently, when Greene was serving as an intelligence officer in pre-Independence British Sierra Leone during the Second World War, he came across Polish soldiers among the Allied forces passing through Freetown, as that city was used as a convoy station at the height of the War, with hundreds of cargo ships and military vessels moored at Freetown’s natural harbour at one point.

Of course there are sharp criticisms of Conrad’s works, the merits and demerits of which are not within the remit of this presentation. I acknowledge the father of African Literature Chinua Achebe’s stance on the issue, but what needs highlighted is the fact that, at such earliest times of Africa’s coming of age – if I may put it that way – Sierra Leone, represented (rightly or wrongly, but glaringly) by the character of Henry Price (or Makola), stood out in the literary world.

Certainly, Henry Price does not represent a wholesome Sierra Leone just as Count Dracula does not represent a wholesome European society in Abraham Stoker’s 1897 novel. What is true is that, any time Joseph Conrad (‘one of the greatest English-language novelists of all time’) is fully appreciated in literary circles, Sierra Leone has to be mentioned! And we, Sierra Leoneans, are thankful for that!

I AM A STUDENT OF CONRAD

But not only that, I can humbly submit that Conrad greatly influenced me as a student of Literature at the self-same Fourah Bay College, the very ‘oldest university’. I studied him up to the Honours level! If I could stand here today to address you, if I can boast of writing books myself (my debut novel, ‘Lovebird Escapes’, will be published in August this year by a UK traditional publisher), I can for sure tell you that Conrad’s style of writing partly inspired me.

But then I could have loved Conrad, and could be writing a bit like him (as someone has noted to me, which I acknowledged with humility); but how did that all fall into place to get me here, at the Polish University Abroad in London. There is no part in my autobiography, ‘Pope Francis, Politics and the Mabanta Boy’ (2019), in which I mentioned Conrad or Polish influence on my educational pursuits; and in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought two or three years ago that my book would lead me to this university. But then the Good Book says: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

MY LITERARY ROAD TO THE POLISH UNIVERSITY ABROAD IN LONDON

By chance, I suppose, the head of the newly created Africa Studies Unit of the Polish University Abroad in London (PUNO), our dear moderator of this conference, Dr Teresa Naidoo – to cut a long story short – bought my book, liked it, and eventually recruited me. So here am I, ladies and gentlemen. Kudos to Dr Naidoo. I’m grateful, madam.

And you can’t believe that I am meeting her in person for the first time.

And if you were in my situation, you would understand why I am so over-enthused, because (perhaps by chance again) just within this timeframe of me being incorporated into this university, my home-country Sierra Leone and Poland have been able to formally establish diplomatic relations.

POLAND HAS JUST RECENTLY ESTABLISHED DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS WITH SIERRA LEONE

Precisely, in September 2021 (six-seven months ago), a Polish consulate was opened in Freetown under the supervision of the Nigeria-based Polish Ambassador. Thanks to the research I did for this presentation, I got to speak with the consul, and – save for the current Ukraine crisis – he is full of hope for this relationship. As at now, Sierra Leone hasn’t got a consulate in Poland; but the diplomatic affairs are being handled by our ambassador based, interestingly, in Russia. So there is a snag – but it may help in quickening the setting up of a Sierra Leone consulate in Poland!

Notwithstanding, the formalisation of this relationship through the recent setting up of a consulate in Freetown is the culmination of long years of people-to-people friendship since the end of the war in Sierra Leone. The Polish government, now having a policy of opening up to Africa, and after seeing some of its citizens developing an interest and residing in Sierra Leone, decided to take action. According to the consul, the Abuja-based ambassador had been regularly visiting her compatriots in Sierra Leone and saw the country as a virgin land for potential economic, cultural, educational and technological exchange.

As I speak, there are an estimated number of 30 Polish nationals in Sierra Leone engaged in various activities. We don’t have an official figure for the number of Sierra Leoneans currently in Poland. The establishment of diplomatic relations and opening a consulate in Poland would resolve that.

Not so surprisingly, with Poland having produced one of the most-loved Popes, John Paul II (who almost visited Sierra Leone but the trip got cancelled at the last minute due to the rebel war), the most visible Polish group in Sierra Leone are catholic missionaries who had been coming and going since the end of the war. They eventually decided to stay by establishing a school in Sierra Leone. The Congregation of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, founded in Mysliborz, West Poland, in 1947 formally opened the St. Faustina Pre-School in Kambia, northern Sierra Leone, in December 2016. It has a current enrolment of 115, focusing on giving children a solid educational foundation. The sisters also teach at the Kolenten Senior Secondary School, while furthermore offering psycho-social support to girls and women.

When I spoke to the Senior Sister for this presentation, she was very happy about the formalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries. She told me that, had it not been for that, they could have possibly lost one of the sisters during the Covid period when she fell very ill. The intervention of the consulate fast-tracked her evacuation back to Poland for professional treatment and she has fully recovered and back at work.

According to the consul, other Polish nationals in Sierra Leone are doing business, while some others are expatriates within the UN or NGO sectors.

THE TWO COUNTRIES STAND TO BENEFIT FROM EACH OTHER: ENGLISH TEACHERS FROM SIERRA LEONE, SOCIO-ECONOMIC SUPPORT FROM POLAND

But even before I discovered all this, the Africa Studies Unit had envisaged that the two countries can raise the people-to-people cooperation to a higher level. Sierra Leone, as an early riser in the pursuit of western-style education, as mentioned earlier, has the human educational resource that would be greatly beneficial to Poland – and that is, English teachers. We all know how English has become the world’s most sought-after language for international relations – so that even though Britain is no longer in the EU, English is still a dominant official language for that organisation. There is no gainsaying the fact that Polish people, especially the young, need access to a flood of teachers of English.

It is therefore up to policy-makers and stakeholders to grab the opportunity and get English teachers from Sierra Leone to teach Polish nationals – either remotely or in person – at a certainly more reasonable cost than getting teachers from the UK or USA or Australia. The proposal has already been developed by the unit, through the World Institute for Safe and Ethical Artificial Intelligence (WISEAI), headed by this university’s Strategic Development Director, Mr Roman Mazur.

AFRICA STUDIES UNIT KEY TO ENHANCING PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE RELATIONS

The unit has not stopped there, but has actually conducted a research on poverty levels in Sierra Leone through a pilot project called Floor4Africa, which was initiated in Kenya. With my hometown used as a model, the research found out that a lot more could be done in the area of poverty-alleviation with particular reference to the UN’s SDG3. With many rural people still sleeping in houses with no concrete floors, the study found out – with a practical intervention in one house – that just 400 pounds can radically change the living conditions of entire households for generations, as concrete floors prevent infectious diseases that are so prevalent in Africa.

CONCLUSION: A WIN-WIN SITUATION FOR POLAND AND SIERRA LEONE

I am bringing all this to show how a compact relationship between Sierra Leone and Poland would be of immense benefit to the ordinary people in both countries. And I am really grateful and much humbled to be counted as one of the pioneers of such an innocuous relationship from an academic perspective, which I expect and believe will grow in leaps and bounds as the years go by. I would now only see a brighter future for the two, both as entities and as peoples, especially in academia, at least through PUNO – with my humble self (somehow a new Henry Price) already here as a symbol of that relationship.

Invariably, though the Polish-Sierra Leone relationship is minimal in terms of numbers, it is clearly a meaningful and impactful one in terms of quality. It can only get` better!

I thank you all for your attention

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