Poland's black MPs
In a country where you can walk on the streets for close to a week without meeting a black African, John Abraham Godson and Killion Munyama stick out, but there is more to the visibility.
They are members of the Polish parliament, Sejm, which is the Lower House. Poland has a bicameral parliament, Senate being the Upper House.
“The fact that we can be elected to parliament in a country that has less than 5,000 Africans tells a lot about the level of acceptance in this country when it comes to the issue of minorities,” says Godson.
Just about 4,000 black Africans live in this former communist dictatorship and a satellite state of the defunct Soviet Union whose population has hit 39 million.
Many Poles know little about Africa, the most they have heard of the continent is South Africa, the leading economy on the continent.
Two years ago, Nigerian-born John Abraham Godson, now a Polish citizen, was sworn in as the first black member of the Sejm. A year later, he was joined in the house by Killion Munyama, a 51-year-old-Zambian who has lived almost half of his life in Poland.
Godson left Nigeria in 1999 after graduating from university to preach and teach English in Poland.
But after four years of lecturing at the University of Poznan, he resigned and for the next ten years, alongside his Polish wife, Aneta, spent their time preaching and doing social work.
“It is then that a political party approached me and asked if I could run for a political seat. I declined. At first I was apprehensive because I was not a politician. I only enjoyed preaching and doing social work,” he recalls.
But in 2003, when he moved to the city of Lodz, pressure from the electorate forced him to run for a district representative’s post. He won by a landslide.
Godson later served as a councillor in the same city before taking up a parliamentary seat in 2010, vacated by a party colleague after local elections. He garnered over 30,000 votes, one of the best voter returns in the elections.
“Winning the district representative inspired me. Later I went for a council post and in 2007, for a parliamentary seat. I lost in my in 2007 but in 2010 I became the first black MP in Poland.”
“I love it here and I want to live the rest of my life here. I have become used to living in a country where I am a minority. I have learnt Polish though at times my daughters have to correct me,” says Godson who is a member of the centre-right Civic Platform party.
It is still quite rare to see black people even in the Polish capital Warsaw, Poland’s most cosmopolitan city. There have been cases of racism, but Godson says this is a rarity today.
Godson was twice beaten up in racist attacks in the early 1990s but he says attitudes towards black people in the country are changing for the better, particularly since Poland joined the European Union six years ago.
Godson, 42, was recently joined in the Polish parliament by Zambian-born academic Killion Munyama. The 50-year-old Munyama stood in a rural constituency near the north-western city of Pila for the governing centrist Civic Platform.
Born in 1961 in Makala, outside the Zambian capital of Lusaka, Munyama went to communist-era Poland in 1982 for an economics degree.
As Poland shifted rapidly to the free market, he stayed on to do a PhD on the role of the International Monetary Fund in Zambia’s economic reforms, graduating in 1994.
He has since been a lecturer in international finance and runs a consultancy preparing bids for funding from the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004.
In 2002 he was elected a councillor in the town of Grodzisk Wielkopolski. Days before Zambia celebrated its 47th independence anniversary, Munyama was celebrating his political victory, not in his native country, but across the seas and oceans.
“I came to Poland on a scholarship and studied international finance and upon graduation in 1987, I returned to Zambia. I was employed in the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry for almost half a year. Then I returned to Poland for a PhD programme. Ever since, I have worked here. I have been a lecturer in International Finance since 1994 at the Poznan University of Economics,” he said.
“It was not very easy being a student here during the communism era, but we managed to live on and you can see what we are achieving as Africans although we are a small community,” he says.
“The situation in Poland before the 80s was totally different from what we have now and this is what has enabled us foreigners to assimilate and participate in politics,” says Munyama.
“I was young when I came here, and I have learnt a lot living here. I feel so Polish. Growing up here was never easy but I was focused on my studies, but slowly I fell in love with the country and decided to return for my PhD and later made up my mind to live here,” says Munyama whose wife for 20 years, Elizabeth, is Polish. They have three children: Jeffrey, 21, Pamela, 18, and Phillip, 10.
“I have established some roots in Polish politics because this is not my first election in the country but the fourth. I started at local government level in 2002 in a small city called Grodzisk. I was a councillor there for four years. Then I stood for the elections of the Wielkopolska regional Parliament.”
“I have grown to be a politician here and I feel so much at home. I can only visit Zambia because that is where I was born and I keep in touch with some friends there. Poland is my home.”
Munyama and Godson now sit in a committee to foster ties with Africa.
“Our mission is to market Poland as a destination Africans can come to to live, work and even invest,” says Godson.
A Polish/Africa chamber of commerce is being set up as part of the mission to build strong ties with the continent. Does the duo believe that a black man will one day be the president of Poland?
“You never know. The country is growing to accept blacks as equals. It may take long, it took America many years to have a black man as president, now we have Obama. Poland may also one day just have one,” says Godson.