Thursday, January 11, 2007

Oprah’s $40-million school for girls

I made a mistake last week. Instead of writing $40 million, I wrote $40,000. That’s minus three zeroes or a staggering difference of $39,960,000. I wanted to show how big $40 million was so I wrote the numbers—zeroes and all—(instead of the word million) but was short of three zeroes.

So how does $40,000,000 look now? That was how much US TV giant Oprah Winfrey spent to build a school for poor girls in South Africa. The Opra Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened last Jan. 2 with the first 75 students whom Opra herself had handpicked.

I promised Edna Zapanta Manlapaz, one of those who pointed out the error and who sent me the Jan. 2007 issue of the Oprah magazine, that I would write a longer piece on the “academy”. The latest issue has the story about now the school came to be, what it is like and the process of choosing the first students. The story, “Building a Dream” is by Pamela Gien and the photographs by Graham Abbott.

Five years and $40 million were not all that it took to build, for the building of this dream had begun much earlier. That is, in the heart of a woman who had known what it was to be poor, black and sexually abused—and who rose to become one of the world’s richest, most popular and loved media giant.

The article’s main blurb says: “ It started as a wish—for a first-class school that would nurture, educate and turn gifted South African girls from impoverished backgrounds into the country’s future leaders…”

The academy sits on a 22-hectare site one hour south of Johannesburg, the Department of Education’s suggested site. And it is first-class in amenities, landscape, building construction, artistic details, name it. A dream world indeed for girls who have not been in anything like it. And sure, this must have raised some eyebrows, including mine.

But here, from the Oprah magazine article, is its whys and whynots.

“Creating this school has not been easy, logistically or socially. From the beginning, (Oprah) struggled to explain her vision, a school that could ‘contain the emotional, spiritual selves of the girls.’ Because these girls come from poverty, she was first given designs she felt looked like a chicken coop, then a barracks. Planners advised that these African children were not accustomed to much: no water, no electricity, some share a bed with relatives.

“Oprah was told that the simplest environment would be a luxury to them that they would need only basics. She sent the plans back. ‘I said from the start, I am creating everything in this school that I would have wanted for myself—so the girls will have the absolute best that my imagination can offer…’

“Now it’s a full campus with 26 buildings…At first glance, the effect is an unusual combination of functionality and elegance. The architecture has African roots, quiet, earthy, beautiful. The bricks, chosen by Oprah, echo the soft gold of the sand on which the school is built, making it seem as if it sprang up organically from the earth…”

That is the physical. Now Oprah makes her pitch. “When I became successful as a journalist, I knew that it was a part of me to give back to girls who are like myself… My own success has come from a strong background in reading and learning, the greatest gift you can give is the gift of learning…I want somebody who already knows that education is empowerment, and who wouldn’t have had the chance to fulfill the great possibilities of her life had this not happened. I want to change the trajectory of a child’s life.”

Oprah’s deep love for South Africa’s hero and former President Nelson Mandela was a great driving force in making her dream of a school come true. In a country where violence against females is epidemic, wrote Gien, where many girls under the age of 10 have already been raped, where the estimate for HIV infection in children and adults is one in eight, and more than 36 percent of black women are unemployed, often illiterate, and subsisting in tin shanties, a chance like this for a young African girl is akin to suddenly finding yourself on a rocket to the moon.

The girls, mostly on the threshold of adolescence, will have a lot marvel at. They will become big in the eyes of their communities. They will become the “new elite”.

The phrase rankles. But only if it means becoming a breed apart and alienated from their roots. Might these girls become that? Or could “new elite” mean the future compassionate, benevolent leaders that will help others rise to heights they had never known and be the best?

Questions always rise when the best and brightest of the poor are plucked, either to mix with their rich counterparts, or to be plunked into a privileged environment. What will they become? What will this do to their character? What happens to their families? Will they be able to find the road back?

I know of special schools for students coming from indigenous communities. Are they better off among themselves or should they go mainstream?

Should it always be the brightest? Oprah herself didn’t start off as a promising kid. She grew up poor with her grandma in rural Mississippi. Raped at nine, sexually abused until she was 14, pregnant at a young age. (The baby died.) Her father told her: “This is your second chance. Make good on it.”

Would the Oprah now have handpicked the young troubled Oprah? Oftentimes, it is the average, overlooked kid (not those in the honors list) that later excels in her/his field (like Einstein). It is the poor, oppressed and abused who grows the biggest heart, and who, with just a little help, becomes an Oprah.