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Oprah Winfrey has opened the doors of a new school near Johannesburg for poor girls, completing a promise she made to Nelson Mandela six years ago.

The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa aims to discover, teach and inspire young South African girls to become a new generation of leaders. Having invested $10m initially, Oprah’s investment grew to $40m as the project progressed, and she hopes this will be only the first of many such schools built in impoverished communities around the world.

The academy selects 11-to-13 year-old girls whose family income is less than $700 a month, and Oprah hand-picked the first 75 students in the summer of 2006. The school will eventually cater for 450 students.

For the TV host, whose own upbringing was disadvantaged, the project has been a labour of love. Violence against females is epidemic in South Africa, many girls under the age of 10 have already been raped, the estimate for HIV infection in children and adults is one in eight, and more than 36% of black women are unemployed, often illiterate, and subsisting in tin shanties.

“When I first started making a lot of money, I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write cheque after cheque to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me,” she told America’s Newsweek magazine.

“At a certain point, you want to feel that connection,” she added.

Rejecting initial plans for facilities that she considered substandard, Oprah said, “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.”

The high-tech residential school features classrooms with outdoor teaching space, a gym, auditorium for budding speakers, homely dormitories, South African art commissioned by Oprah, and a syllabus that promotes decision making, critical and expansive thinking, social responsibility and the rewards of giving back to one’s own community.


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