Wednesday, January 03, 2007

From poverty to power: Oprah opens girls school

from The Seattle Times


HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa — Oprah Winfrey headed a celebrity lineup that included Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey and Spike Lee at the opening Tuesday of the talk-show queen's new leadership academy for poor South African girls.

The true stars, though, were Sade and Megan, whose father killed their mother and then himself; Zodwa, whose mother died of AIDS, and some 150 other girls who Winfrey said had a "light so bright" that it shone through their deprivation and helped their dreams come true.

The $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in the town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg, plucked the girls from poverty to be groomed for power.

Winfrey said she planned to open another school for boys and girls this month in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province.

Nelson Mandela, whom Winfrey credited with inspiring her to build the school, interrupted his vacation for the ceremony. Mandela, 88, looked frail as he was helped to the stage by Winfrey and his wife, Graça Machel.

Winfrey said that educating girls could have far-reaching benefits.

"Girls who are educated are less likely to get HIV/AIDS, and in this country, which has such a pandemic, we have to begin to change the pandemic," she said.

Many of the girls come from families affected by the disease, which has infected 5.4 million of South Africa's 48 million people and hit women disproportionately hard.

Winfrey referred repeatedly to her own impoverished childhood and said she was grateful she had a good education.

"I was a poor girl who grew up with my grandmother, like so many of these girls, with no water and electricity," she said.

Built on 52 acres, the 28-building campus resembles a luxury hotel, with state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science labs and a library, theater and wellness center. Each girl lives in a two-bedroom suite.

Winfrey said she chose "every brick tile, sheet and spoon," because "if you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you."

Some South Africans called the school elitist and a waste of money. But others applauded Winfrey.

"Any initiative which ... enhances the quality of education and which enhances the possibility of a young person realizing their dream to do better is a welcome opportunity," Education Minister Naledi Pandor said.

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