In the early nineteen-eighties, I am ten years old and a new vice-principal arrives at my school. At O’Connor Public School in Toronto, Mr. Goldberg sets up a closed-circuit television studio. The show us students and Mr. Goldberg produce is called OCTV News, short for O’Connor Television News.
In a small room of the school that was a teachers’ lounge, an anchor’s desk and a camera as big as me replaces coffee makers and plastic cushions. A few grade five students, myself included, rotate through the various production jobs. Sometimes, I am the sound engineer, which means putting the needle on the Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun,” our theme music. Sometimes, I am the announcer, which means telling Angelika to show up to the Peter Pan play rehearsals. She is playing Peter, and I am Wendy.
On International Day we have to bring a dish from our heritage for the other students. Mr. Goldberg forgets it is International Day and didn’t write anything into our scripts about it for OCTV News. That day I am co-announcing.
“Donna and Eric, just ad-lib about the International Day after the news,” Mr. Goldberg says seconds before we go on-air.
Tyrone is the director that day. Standing beside the monstrous camera and facing Eric and me, he holds up his fingers.
“Three, two, one…you’re on air,” Tyrone says.
Eric and I both look into the bright red light, trying not to fidget as Mr. Goldberg tells us again and again. Eric and I also try not to keep our heads down as we read from our scripts as Mr. Goldberg also tells us. “Don’t rustle the pages,” Mr. Goldberg always tells us in our post-show meeting.
The news is first with soccer practice at five o’clock for the girls’ and boys’ teams. Track and field practice is at five-thirty. Eric announces that the following day on Thursday at lunchtime there will be try-outs for the Easter celebration choir.
After the news, Eric asks me what dish I will bring in for International Day on Thursday. I tell him “matoke,” a common Ugandan meal made of steamed and mashed green bananas.
“Where is Uganda?” Eric asks.
“In Africa,” I say.
“Oh, Africa! I thought they ate people there, I didn’t know they ate food!” Eric says.
I almost cry.
“I think there’s a lot you don’t know about Africa, Eric,” I choke out. “My uncles, aunts, and cousins who still live there don’t eat people.”
“Well what is Africa like?” he asks.
I went to Uganda as a baby. I was born and raised in Canada.
My father came to Canada on a Commonwealth scholarship. When he returned to Uganda for a new job with a new wife and baby, that was me, Dictator Idi Amin was in power. We all escaped the country with only our lives.
“Well, Eric…” I pause, feeling the eyes of five hundred other students at O’Connor Public School waiting for me to respond. “My family in Uganda lives in a brick house, not a grass hut. My family in Uganda drives a car, not a camel. My family in Uganda eat matoke, not people.”
“I didn’t know,” says Eric.
Eric starts by breaking the silence, however, I can hear shouts and screams and cheers from offset in the hallways where TV sets hang high to broadcast the news and I can faintly hear cheering in some of the closer classrooms.
“I want to know more about Uganda,” Eric says.
I look up and see Tyrone rolling his hands, giving me the signal that we need to wrap up.
“Tune in for more tomorrow,” I say, ad-libbing to the camera. “This is Donna Kakonge and thanks for watching OCTV News.”
I turn to Eric. “This is Eric Smith and thanks for watching OCTV News.”
I ask my teacher if my father can come to class and talk about Uganda. Soon afterward, dad is standing at the front of the class with my globe piggy bank, rattling change as he turns it to point out Uganda.
Later at home, while my father is tucking me into bed he says, “I guess we did feed those kids at O’Connor a lot more than matoke.”