Jan. 8, 2007 issue - Two thousand and six was the year Africa went Hollywood: Madonna, Clooney, Brangelina. And now, in 2007, the most exclusive spot on the continent will undoubtedly be in the town of Henly-on-Klip, about 40 miles outside Johannesburg. Set on 22 lush acres and spread over 28 buildings, the complex features oversize rooms done in tasteful beiges and browns with splashes of color, 200-thread-count sheets, a yoga studio, a beauty salon, indoor and outdoor theaters, hundreds of pieces of original tribal art and sidewalks speckled with colorful tiles. Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Stevie Wonder, Nelson Mandela and the reigning African Queen herself—Angelina Jolie—are expected to attend the grand opening this week. By now, you're probably wondering how much a spread like this goes for per night. Actually, it's free. There's only one catch—you have to be a 12- or 13-year-old African girl to get in. As spectacular as this place sounds, it's not a resort. It's a school: the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.I suppose I have become a major education cynic, but I read stories like this and the first think to myself is what sort of curriculum are they going to be using. It probably doesn't matter though since these girls have been hand picked by community leaders and Oprah. I am going to assume this process ensures that they are all have enormous potential and thus will probably do well if given the slightest opportunity.
Winfrey has spent five years and $40 million building the school to her own Oprahlicious specifications—did we mention the huge fireplaces in every building? The talk-show diva always does things in grand style, of course. But $40 million for a school for impoverished girls in Africa does seem a bit, well, extravagant. In fact, the South African government had planned to build the school with her, but it pulled out amid reported criticism that the academy was too elitist and lavish for such a poor country. Oprah doesn't care. "These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire," she says, sitting on the couch of her hotel suite overlooking the deep-blue Indian Ocean. "I wanted this to be a place of honor for them because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They've never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child."
The article does bring up the question of whether $40 million is to much for 152 girls and whether the money might be better spent in other ways. In fact it is hinted that the South African government pulled out of the project for this very reason. I myself hold the opinion that its Oprah's money to do with as she pleases.
I don't know enough about South African society and culture, but I wonder if even with a superior education these poor girls will be able to make a difference in South Africa. I suspect that the power structure in SA relies a good bit on nepotism. Perhaps the majority of them will emigrate to other nations, but hopefully I am wrong.
You do have to admire Oprah for one thing though... she doesn't do things half way.