When television icon and business leader Oprah Winfrey opened a girl’s academy in South Africa in 2007, many dismissed the idea as a publicity stunt.
Last year, the Johannesburg based school held its first graduation and 100 per cent of its graduates were accepted in colleges, including top-ranking ones in the US and South Africa.
Several of those graduates received full scholarships to top it all. The girls produced 188 matriculation distinctions in their Senior National Certificate examinations.
Educating girls is a profitable investment for any developing country as this goes a long way in creating changes in various communities.
However, it has not been a smooth road for the school. At some point, the institution was reportedly plagued with sex scandal allegations, claims Oprah refuted.
A UK newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, had reported that students at the institution, “preyed” on a schoolmate, and six others were “alleged to have touched each other intimately”.
A dorm matron was also accused of abusing the girls and was later dismissed.
In as much as many voices criticised Oprah for going to Africa to set up an institution, she surged ahead, used her wealth and accorded the girls opportunity to get education to enable them succeed and in turn, better their country.
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls was founded in 2007 in Henley-on-Klip, Johannesburg to turn a handful of impoverished girls into elite leaders. It cost $40 million from Oprah.
These girls were in great need and the academy was their beacon of hope.
In as much as her efforts have been met with wild allegations, Oprah seems passionate about education, coming from a background of suffering as a girl.
The school seems to be weathering the stormy sea with their visions fixed ashore.
Oprah’s gesture reminds me of Irish singer Bob Geldof who saw Ethiopian children starving, and was driven to tears. He later founded band Aid, and brought in the celebrity crowd, who raised millions of dollars to feed the starving population.
Later came other notable celebrity, Bono of U2, and his grand campaign against Third World debt to rich countries and the International Monetary Fund.
As Times magazine put it, he is busy convincing rich countries that saving Africa from financial ruin was in their best interest.
Bono argues that wiping $350 billion from their books, African nations would be free to spend more on health care and education, rather than repay the principal on loans procured by corrupt and sometimes long-gone governments. A worthy cause, many would nod in agreement with.
World tennis champion Serena Williams has also followed Oprah’s footsteps and opened two secondary schools in eastern Kenya in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Serena Williams Secondary School in Matooni and Wee Secondary School in Makueni, were built through partnership between the Build African Schools initiative and Hewlett Packard.
Her move was informed by the plight of the children from that region and since they were many, she thought giving them education would be the best way to lift them from poverty.
Some very bright children in Africa were hindered from achieving their dreams since they could not afford education and Serena has also shown some genuine humanitarian concern to reach out to the needy.
Now, other celebrities were pouring into the continent, not with the sophisticated message of debt cancellation or debt relief or education like Oprah, but with something different.
The latest fad was to adopt ‘poor’ children. Starting with American pop idol Madonna, who is ‘fond’ of Malawian babies, others have followed suit.
Madonna made another trip to adopt another ‘poor’ African baby Mercy Chifundo James at the time she had just divorced her star husband Guy Ritchie.
She was, however, given the green light by Malawi Government. Perhaps an indication of how laws can be bended where fame and money were involved.
In the same year, Madonna announced she was going to build an elite academy for poor girls, which was such sweet music in a country where only 33 per cent of girls attended secondary school.
Some Malawians were thrown out of their homes to create room for the Elite Academy that never was.
Farmers from nine villages in Chinkhota, about 15km from Lilongwe, were controversially displaced from their lands to accommodate the musician’s new flagship project of ‘future leaders for Malawi”.
However, after displacing villagers and making the government spend on title deeds on the 117-acre of land, Madonna abandoned the project. She now says she will build 10 schools in rural areas.
However, if you thought adoption stopped with Madonna, then you need to think twice for movie star Angelina Jolie was also into this business- she has Ethiopian baby under her custody.
About two years ago, South African music icon Yvonne Chakachaka, who is the Unicef Special Ambassador on Malaria, also promised to adopt a Malawian teenager.
It is doubtful whether these ‘super stars’, who adopt African children have put much thought into the cultural dilemmas and adjustments those adopted were forced to go through.
Should these children be uprooted from their family set-ups or aren't they better off supported while they remained where they were?
Are these celebrities necessarily good parents?
Are their often-dramatic lifestyles helpful to the adopted children?
Building a school or a home like Oprah did in South Africa or Serena Williams did in Kenya could be more beneficial to the children and to the larger community than handpicking a few African babies then sitting back to bask in glory and fame to highlight their concerns against poverty.
In view of the above, Oprah and Serena were doing Africa proud by offering education to many as opposed to other foreign celebrities who think adoption was the solution to the circumstances confronting many needy children across the continent.