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An uplifting experience

Donna Kakonge

Donna Kakonge is currently working on a book of short stories.

Since the age of seven I knew I wanted to write. My master’s degree in media studies from Concordia helped me reach that goal — and much more.

When I entered the master’s program in 1997, I was quite depressed. I had been living and working in Uganda, but health problems had forced me to return to Canada earlier than expected. I was staying with friends I knew from my undergrad years in Ottawa. The only place that came close to providing me a sense of home was Toronto; I just hated Montreal. I wasn’t doing any writing, the medication I was taking put pounds on, and I was generally unhappy with myself.

In my first year of the master’s program, I didn’t even have enough confidence to handle a full course load, so I slogged through two courses in the first term. I started exercising at the YMCA at my doctor’s suggestion, and the only writing I did was the essays for my Communications Theory and International Affairs classes. Thank God I had that. If it wasn’t for those essays, I wouldn’t have been doing any writing at all.

Slowly I built my confidence up, and I started doing some volunteer work at a radio station. There, I met someone who linked me with Radio Canada International, where I had an opportunity to do freelance radio stories. My first story was on an international radio conference in Montreal — and it was awful! The show’s producer gave me a fair and balanced critique; more importantly, he let me do another story. By this time I was taking a full course load at Concordia, I was a teaching assistant with comm studies professor Marie-Hélène Cousineau, and my confidence started to build. My second piece was much stronger.

I spent the summer in Montreal, and even wrote a short story, “Church Sunday,” that was later published in Concordia’s creative writing anthology, Headlight.

By my second year I had learned the art of independent study, and my depression started to fade. That year was one of the best times of my life. Early in the school term I was at the reception for Headlight with two friends and colleagues from my program. I was saying that I didn’t know what to do for my master’s thesis. The conversation turned to hair, and they suggested that I do my thesis on the politics of black hair. At first I thought they were joking, but I soon began to take them seriously, and that eventually became my thesis topic.

The suggestion went one step further when professor Kim Sawchuk suggested I create a website and a project as part of the thesis. I hesitated at first because I thought you had to be a rocket scientist to set up a website, but soon learned otherwise.

The hands-off style of my advisor, Martin Allor, was just what I needed. His input was invaluable, and when I was having difficulty coming up with bibliographic material, he directed me towards Michele Wallace’s Invisibility Blues. This book became like a bible for me — Ms. Wallace had also gone through a depression while doing her academic work.

I eventually finished my thesis, Afro Forever. When I presented it to Dr. Allor on my birthday in 1999, he gave me as a gift a book on hair. I probably didn’t show it, but I was deeply touched, and really felt that I had come a long way during the two years spent completing my degree.

It’s now six years since I graduated and I’ve had lots of writing jobs — including one with a team of other media studies graduates. Thank you, Concordia.

Donna Kakonge ( is a freelance writer for the Media Research Institute in Toronto.

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September 2005

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