Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oprah's Leadership Academy

When I first learned that Oprah was building a school in South Africa, I was filled with hope and joy. Life for women is difficult, and even more so in South Africa. Young girls, and women are routinely raped as it is thought that having sex with a virgin will cure aids. This is a crime of ignorance and hatred. Though South Africa is no longer an apartheid state, a vast majority of blacks have not experienced a great change in their living conditions. Many townships do not have running water and electricity. Parents still routinely struggle to pay school fees for their children. It is in this damaging environment, that Oprah built her Leadership Academy. She personally went to South Africa, and interviewed many of the 3500 girls that applied for the 150 places.

As part of the criteria for acceptance the total family income could not exceed 700 dollars a month. On Oprah's site, one can view brief video biographies of some of the young girls that have been accepted to her school. I spent a few minutes listening to the stories of these brave young women and was deeply moved. Their lives have been touched by poverty, and aids. One young woman speaks of her daily fear of being raped. I am transfixed as I watch another feed her younger siblings oatmeal mixed with water....their supper for the evening.

These young women are victims of birth. How would their lives be different had they not been born black and female in South Africa? Would we even recognize them as the souls they are today? Into this quagmire of despair, Oprah through the building of a school hoped to interject a ray of light and hope. In the time since opening the Leadership Academy things have not run smoothly. Tiny Virginia Makopo a former matron of the school is facing criminal charges for indecent criminal assault.

Recently a young student suffered a mental breakdown. It seems that she could not adjust to the school environment. She is also suffers from epilepsy a condition that the school what not aware of at the time of her enrollment. She was scheduled to leave the hospital where she was admitted for treatment, and return to her impoverished home.

Does it come as any surprise, that even though these young girls have been given the opportunity of a lifetime, that issues with mental health would arise? In one testimony a girl speaks of watching her father kill her mother? How does one put that aside, to learn geometry and grammar?

For some girls this may be the first time that they have felt safe enough to even reflect upon the horrors of their daily existence. What these instances make clear, is that the soul must heal before the body can move on. In fact these girls were chosen in part because of the horrific circumstances that they were living in.

it is their trauma that stands in their way of transcending. These young women have been damaged by the conditions under which they have been forced to live. It is naive to think that handing them a textbook, and a uniform would be enough to drown out the echoes of the past. While the school is definitely a step in the right direction, unless these young women receive the mental help counseling they need to deal with past traumas, incidents like this will continue to occur.


RuthMH said...

Renee, I had not heard of the little girl that had Epiepsy in Oprah's Academy. She also had some other issues too with mental illness. But to anyone reading this blog, I hope they don't confuse Epilepsy with mental illness. I know you didn't say that here but I had to read the blog twice to make sure I wasn't reading it wrong.

As I'm sure you know Renee, Epilepsy is a Neurological illness, not a Mental illness. I guess since I have Epilepsy, I am a bit touchy on this. Many people after watching someone in a grand mal (tonic clonic) seizure may mistake them as mentally ill. I just want to make that clear for those who do not understand the difference.

I felt proud, as a woman, when this Academy was started by Oprah, but it did seem obvious to me at the time that good housing and an education could not be the total answer to the lives of these girls. There has been so much wrong in these girls lives that it seemed inevitable that problems would arise before things got better.

Renee said...

For the record I am in no way implying that epilepsy and mental illness are related. I stated it as one of her medical conditions that went unnoticed by the school.

Andie said...

Quite right, Renee; their trauma does stand in the way of their transcending. I'm quite surprised that Oprah never thought to include some type of counseling or classwork in order to help these unfortunate girls deal with everything they've experienced!

To thrust them from one extreme into another seems haphazard and thoughtless.

Janet Shan said...

I agree with you Renee, their lives were fraught with so many horrific events, that though the intention of Oprah is noble and good, an education will not fix the emotionals scars that lurk in the backgrounds of these young women. You raised an important point that was missed by many, possibly including Oprah. They need some type of intervention to help them in fact transcend their circumstances and rise. Great post!

Person913 said...

I totally agree with you Renee...people seem to think that once you're not being hurt anymore, all you need is a good distraction to move past it...SO not true.

Ebony Intuition said...


Anonymous said...

I read "My Stroke of Insight" in one sitting - I couldn't put it down. I laughed. I cried. It was a fantastic book (I heard it's a NYTimes Bestseller and I can see why!), but I also think it will be the start of a new, transformative Movement! No one wants to have a stroke as Jill Bolte Taylor did, but her experience can teach us all how to live better lives. Her speech was one of the most incredibly moving, stimulating, wonderful videos I've ever seen. Her Oprah Soul Series interviews were fascinating. They should make a movie of her life so everyone sees it. This is the Real Deal and gives me hope for humanity.