Africa Update: Oprah Winfrey's Work with Schoolgirls

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Farai Chideya speaks with Charlayne Hunter-Gault about Oprah Winfrey's new school for girls in South Africa.


Well, Oprah Winfrey has taken a spotlight in South Africa where she launched the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. She's put not only $40 million of her money into the effort; she's also invested countless hours of personal time, overseeing every detail. Down to choosing the sheets and ensuring the nightlights are just the right distance from where the girls sleep. A host of stars from the U.S. were on hand to witness the ribbon cutting last Tuesday. So was our special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Happy New Year to you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah, well, it's been a great new year for everybody here in South Africa who had anyway of witnessing the opening of Oprah's girls academy. People were just so amazed, especially as they took the guided tours by some of the young students there. You know, this school is on 50 acres of land in a very pastoral community about an hour outside of Johannesburg. Twenty-eight buildings - one, a library with a fireplace like you've never seen, state-of-the-art science labs, even a yoga room and a wellness center, tennis courts, dormitories that rivaled any of the rooms I've seen around in 5-star hotels. I mean it was totally hands-on - which maybe part of the reason the school took six years to build - but people just oohed and aahed for hours that day.

CHIDEYA: Charlayne, so give us some background. What's the purpose of the school?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I could tell you, but let's hear it from Oprah, herself.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Owner and Founder, Oprah's Leadership Academy for Girls): So I wanted to do - give this opportunity to girls who were like me. Girls who were poor, who'd come from disadvantaged circumstances. But girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty, disease and life's circumstances could dim that light.

CHIDEYA: Charlayne, Oprah is often talked about as America's counselor in chief or a spiritual guru, because she came from a beginning where not much could have been expected from her by some people, but she knew that she had a light that could shine. Who is she choosing to go to her school?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, the entire country was canvassed by people she hired to do that. The criteria, first of all, was the families had to earn under - what would be in the United States about $800 a year. They got over 3,000 applications from all over the country. There was a rigorous interview process prior to Oprah herself interviewing the last 270 girls. And 150 girls were chosen from that group and they make up seventh and eight grade classes. So, you know, these girls are considered - considering themselves and are being considered - as the luckiest girls in the country, if not the world.

CHIDEYA: So you were there, what were these girls like?

HUNTER-GAULT: You know they are so poised. They are - they're some of the most wonderful, articulate girls I've ever seen. I asked a few of them how they felt about being chosen. Let's listen to 12-year-old Laveka Cabanyani(ph) from Soweto.

Ms. LAVEKA CABANYANI (Student, Oprah's Leadership Academy for Girls): It means that I've got an opportunity to go out there and change the world, change my world, change my family's world. It means that I can go outside and make a difference.

HUNTER-GAULT: Now that was Laveka from Soweto and she's truly internalized Oprah's vision for the school, to prepare young women to change the world.

CHIDEYA: A host of VIPs from the states were on hand to witness this and who were they.

HUNTER-GAULT: They were the Chris Rocks, and the Chris Tuckers, and Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Babyface, Cicely Tyson, and so many others - including one of my other favorites, Anna Deveare-Smith.

CHIDEYA: So how will this fit into the total scheme of things, the efforts to overcome the affects of apartheid in the past, separate and unequal development of education, all of those things?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, the private schools and the independent schools like Oprah's are really doing well because they've got the best of everything -not as good as Oprah's - but it certainly puts the spotlight on a system of public education that is still reeling from the apartheid years. The national results from the 12th grade testing were released the other day and some of the schools in the poor black townships have actually achieved stunning results.

But the overall achievement rate has fallen and that really worries people like the minister of education, Naledi Pandor, who call this a visible weakness in the education system. The students who are suffering the most, these days, are the black poor students, who'd not had great opportunities at education. And even when they go into college, they might get admitted but too many of them are not passing.

Now, of course, Oprah's students when they finish, they're going to get to go to the college of their choice, anywhere in the world. So let's hope that's an inspiration to the educational system and those in charge to try and, you know, do at least as well - if not to get students prepared to go anywhere in the world, at least to go to the fine colleges here in this country.

CHIDEYA: So do you think that Oprah's new school will spur an overall renaissance in South African education, and what do you see ahead for her school?

HUNTER-GAULT: What, you know, her school - she has an American woman who used to run an academy, a school for girls, a leadership academy in America who's overseeing this whole thing. So she's been there, done that. But - and she's going to add another group of students each year until she gets her school from now, seventh and eight grade, up to twelfth grade. And she's investing in another school, a coed one, in another part of the country.

But, you know, the minister and president - former President Mandela - and others, are saying that they've got to follow Oprah's, lead including parents and get involved. Because this really is about saving a nation and it's about getting into the heads of young people, the kind of attitude I heard from 13-year-old Tando Dlomo(ph). When I asked her where she thought she was headed. Let's listen to her answer, Farai.

Ms. TANDO DLOMO (Student, Oprah's Leadership Academy for Girls): I'm going straight to the future.

CHIDEYA: Well, Charlayne, that is an absolutely beautiful sentiment and I have no doubt that these girls can make it happen. Charlayne, thanks so much.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai, and again Happy New Year.

CHIDEYA: Happy New Year. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is NPR's special Africa correspondent and brought us this very special look at Oprah's new school in South Africa.

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That's our show for today and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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