'Auntie Olga' still going strong in Barbados

Guyana Chronicle
March 12, 2001

'As broadcasters, we adhered to a strict code of professional ethics'

FOR those enjoying the heady, hurly burly - some would say out of control - offerings of the many television and radio stations in Guyana today, it's hard to believe that some of us old timers once listened to one radio station.

For those switching the dials to tune into the literally dozens of television stations, there are only memories of Radio Demerara.

Among the staffers was Olga Lopes, or `Auntie Olga', as she was affectionately known. She wasn't only a news anchorwoman - the first Guyanese woman to do that job - but a professional newswoman with a humanitarian bent who organised and hosted special fund-raising programmes for needy children.

On top of that, she was also a popular singer. Some referred to her as the `Vera Lynn of BG' (Vera Lynn was a famous British singer who sang for Allied troops during World War II and was also well liked by those in the then British colonies). Auntie Olga was also known throughout the English-speaking Caribbean as the `Swinging Sweetheart of Guyana'.

What became of her?

In 1963, she emigrated to Barbados with her Barbadian husband Dick Seale who had worked in the then British Guiana sugar sector.

The move to the Eastern Caribbean island didn't change her one bit. She remained in radio. Shortly after unpacking her bags, she knocked on the doors of Barbados Rediffusion, the 166 square mile island's only radio station at the time.

Another Radio Demerara colleague, Frank Pardo, would also emigrate to Barbados and join her at Rediffusion, which, like its Guyanese namesake, was owned by the same British company.

She fitted in quite well, thank you. Modelled on the Radio Demerara Needy Children's Fund, the Rediffusion Needy Children's Fund was started to help poor `Bajan' youngsters.

With her calm, soothing voice and a penchant for thorough research about the topic she is covering, Olga Lopes-Seale was for many years throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s part of the Rediffusion team covering major events such as Barbados' Independence celebrations and national awards ceremonies.

Auntie Ogla, now 83, has been granted several prestigious awards herself. Aside from the Member of the British Empire (MBE) bestowed in 1961, she has received the Barbados Service Star (BSS) and the Gold Crown of Merit (GCM). In 1997, she was inducted into the Caribbean Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Well into her 70s and retired from full-time broadcasting work, she started working part-time as a tour guide in the island's tourist sector. This entailed going around with visitors on a bus on an island tour giving the commentary.

In the 1997 Minister of Tourism Awards, she was given the Tour Guide of the Year title.

And the list can go on. Auntie Olga spends more time now tending the flowers at her white-painted `wall' (concrete) bungalow in the Black Rock area of St. Michael parish about 15 minutes drive west of the capital Bridgetown.

Her beloved husband, with whom she spent so many happy moments, passed away in 1989. She is, however, regularly visited by her two children and several grands and great grands.

"I'm still keeping busy. I'm still involved with programmes for needy people. Why do I keep doing it? And at my age? As in the past, I don't know that I could ever see that there is a need and not try, in word or deed, to do something about it. You just can't turn away from it," she said in an interview.

Does she remember her days working at Radio Demerara? And what about the big debate on the need for more professionalism in sections of present Guyana broadcasting scene?

"It was a tough grind for us in those early days of radio. Some of my most rewarding times were of course helping the needy kids. As radio journalists doing interviews with people, for example, you listened to what the other person was saying. This didn't mean you didn't have opinions of your own, but a host shouldn't run away with the show as if it is his or her own. And, of course, we adhered to a strict code of professional ethics. We didn't stir up racial hatred or slander people's reputation as I hear some presenters and moderators are doing in Guyana today. I find it is so easy to dwell on the negative, which is bad. There are always positive things in life and these are always worth highlighting," she said.

And where did the name Auntie Ogla come from?

"It didn't actually come from any nephews or nieces calling me that when I grew older. People tell me that I was a precocious little girl and insisted on being called Auntie in the family household."

The Lopes family members were Guyanese of Portuguese descent living in downtown Georgetown.

Life wasn't easy. Olga was the last of nine children. Six of them had died in infancy. She didn't have too much formal education - she went to the Brickdam School - but was street-wise.

From early, she acquired a habit which was to serve her in good stead in the years ahead and which she recommends to every boy and girl wherever they are - reading books.

She reasons: "Reading is essential if you are to become a fully rounded person. I love to read. I still have my collection of Royal Reader books."

Auntie Olga still keeps abreast of developments in Guyana. Shortly after Dr Cheddi Jagan became President she made a point to go along with hundreds of `Guyanese-Bajans' to hear him speak at a public meeting.

And she continues to be worried about the way some broadcasters in her dear birthplace are denigrating the profession, noted the citation for the induction into the Caribbean Broadcasting Hall of Fame:

"For more than two generations you strove to bring broadcasting into the community and the community into broadcasting. In the process you nourished the one and elevated the other. In these days when we as broadcasters all too often lose sight of our higher purpose, the example of your life will surely remind us of the best that we can be."