Johannesburg, South Africa -- Sometimes, aid for Africa doesn't look like you'd expect it to. On the last day of my visit to South Africa, it looks a lot like Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has lead a truly awe inspiring one-woman crusade to change the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable South Africans. By building her Leadership Academy for Girls, Oprah has created a powerful beacon of hope for a new generation of South African women. With the rigorous academic training along with the physical, emotional and spiritual education these girls will receive they will be sent out into the world armed with tangible skills and a priceless self confidence that will allow them to create opportunity for themselves, as well as for their families, communities and country.
This is a school done as only Oprah can. Built with her exacting standards and phenomenal attention to detail, it reflects her belief in the power of beauty to inspire. And it is jaw droppingly beautiful. She employed countless numbers of local artisans (creating hundreds of jobs in the process) and the very best of African art and culture are every where -- murals on the walls, detailed iron work, colorful baskets, and tribal motifs. The girls sleep in dorms that rival those of well endowed US colleges. On the other hand, lunch in the dining hall bears no resemblance to the food I ate in boarding school or in the college cafeteria. It was healthy and delicious: a hearty vegetable soup and whole grain bread, curried vegetables and salad. Much of the academy's staggering beauty comes from the presence of the girls themselves, young women for whom Oprah clearly feels profound love and respect. During the admission process, one of the girls told her, "Education is my tomorrow". Those words sit beneath a stone monument in the quad at the intersection of the Street of Learning and the Street of Living, a motto for all the girls who cross the square.
The girls we meet -- seventh and eighth graders -- are intelligent, poised and confident. They're as comfortable chatting with the adults in our group as they are with my eight year old son. Each and every one of them glows with the knowledge that she is special, that this one extraordinary woman cared enough to give them , and in turn their country, a future of hope. Hope is in short supply in Africa. It's clear that for all that Oprah has given these girls, she in turn has been nourished by this experience. "They fill me up," she told me.
After all the 'aid' I've seen this week, I say by all means let's work to find more effective methods of delivery, ways to create self sustaining programs, encourage economic development, and empower the people of Africa to care for themselves, but let's not call for an end to foreign aid until its work is accomplished. Let's not dismiss it as a "drop in the bucket" or wasted in a "bottomless pit." After all I have seen on this and other trips to this continent, I can only think we should do more, and can only feel we can do better. And as my friend Liz Dolan said here on this page, "We can not do nothing."
Click here to read the previous post about my visit to Africa, Putting a Human Face on Foreign Aid.