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Oprah Under Fire

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Oprah African School OpeningOprah Winfrey wrote an open letter this weekend to the Boston Globe to explain her goals and actions of her new school in Africa. The letter begins, “The reason I wanted to build a school for girls is because I know that when you educate a girl you begin to change the face of a nation. Girls become women and they educate their girls and their boys. Girls who are educated are less likely to get diseases like HIV and AIDS—a pandemic in South Africa. I believe that we have to begin to change the pandemic through education.”

Oprah goes on to say that the school will “change the trajectory” of the lives of these girls. She also states, “I promised every single girl that comes to this school that she would be able to graduate and go to the university of her choice in the world. I’m going to make sure that happens.”

However, Oprah is under some serious fire regarding this $40 million boarding school. Who would have a problem with someone doing charitable work in a country that needs it so much? Actually, other charities in Africa.
Africans and Americans who work with AIDS orphans say that the proved successful way to run charitable programs is to allow the communities to determine how outsiders can help.

There is also big concern about why Oprah spends so much money for so few girls (152), when there are so many in need. At the opening of the school on January 2, she defended all of the “excesses” such as the yoga studio, beauty parlor, fireplaces in every building and white duvets on every bed by saying, “I understand that many in the [South Africa] school system and out feel that I’m going overboard, and that’s fine,” she told reporters. “This is what I want to do.”

There is also a big concern from locals that this “atmosphere of privilege will separate the children from their communities.” It’s a valid concern. You are raised as a princess, and have been promised to attend any university you desire in the world. The question is, will you use that education to go back and help your community? Or will you start your own life in the US or Europe?

If the question is: ‘will these girls be better off?’ I’m almost positive they will be healthier, more educated, etc. But if the question is: ‘will this school help a nation improve its standards of living, health issues, and poverty?’ The answer is quite different.

So often we Americans figure that we know the right way. But we often don’t. We have to understand that cultural differences don’t make one group of people better or worse than another – Just different.

Summed up perfectly by Kerry Olson of Firelight Foundation, “The problem with donors in general is that they see a mud hut and a child in rags, and then they see an orphanage and a child with a roof over their head and that looks so much better,” Olson said. “What they don’t see is the grandmother in the back of that hut who loves the grandson and the connections that child has with the community.”

Boston Globe: Outside Oprah’s School, a Growing Frustration

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