HENLEY-ON-KLIP, South Africa (AP) _ Oprah Winfrey sat rapt in the front row of the state-of-the-art theater during a show put on by the poor girls for whom she has built an exclusive school.
The talk show host clapped enthusiastically, tapped her foot during a musical item and had a warm hug for one young girl who recited an essay she wrote describing her broken poverty-stricken family and her desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
“I am moved by the stories,” Winfrey told The Associated Press at the end of the school’s annual weeklong arts festival Friday. “When you think about these little girls three years ago carrying buckets of water on their heads and (living) with no running water. Now they are talking about going to Harvard and winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
“I am moved by the fact that I have a vision for them and it now feels like they have embodied that vision for themselves. They are living the dream,” she said.
The girls were treated to acting classes by British actress Thandie Newton and learnt about art and design from Greg Lauren, nephew of American fashion designer Ralph.
The festival included dance classes, photography workshops, and even cooking sessions with Art Smith, Winfrey’s former personal chef.
Newton said she was inspired by the talent and enthusiasm of the girls.
“Their tenacity, their enthusiasm, their ability has just surpassed all of my expectations, I have had an amazing time,” she said.
During the week’s festivities, the girls got a chance to show their rhythm in rap classes with a popular South African musician and learnt the art of storytelling from the legendary African storyteller Gcina Mhlope.
In the finale of Friday’s ceremony, the audience cheered when a group of girls donned Wellington boots for a raucous performance of gumboot dancing. Gumboot dancing _ where performers rhythmically slap and stamp their feet _ is a form of dance made popular by workers at South Africa’s many mines.
The theme of this year’s festival was about creating a greater awareness of the environment through recyclable art.
The girls made radios fashioned from recycled wire, graceful vases from recycled paper and brightly colored flowers cut from discarded plastic bottles.
“You have to learn to start taking care of the world and I think that’s really the greater message that will come from this,” said Winfrey, casually dressed in a white linen trouser suit and beige shawl, her hair loose.
The lavish $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, outside Johannesburg was opened in January 2007. It is the fulfillment of a promise she made to Nelson Mandela and aims to give girls from deprived backgrounds a quality education in a country where schools are struggling to overcome the legacy of apartheid.
The school is spread across a 22-acre campus with neat lawns and garden paths decorated with mosaics. It has computer and science labs, a library and a wellness center.
The school is home to about 300 girls from across the country. They each live in two-bedroom suites _ a far cry from their humble surroundings at home. In one dormitory lounge Friday, a log fire was burning to keep away the winter cold.
Despite strict privacy rules, the school has been accused of being elitist and has been hit by a number of scandals.
A dormitory matron was arrested on charges of abuse and sexual assault in November 2007 and is currently on trial. Earlier this year, four girls were expelled and three suspended. Details of the misconduct are not clear but South African media reported more sexual abuse.
The incidents have deeply upset Winfrey, a victim of rape as a child herself and who has been outspoken about sexual abuse of women and children.
But Friday, during a rare visit by the media, the girls presented a united, sisterly front and walked arm-in-arm or vied for an opportunity to get close to Winfrey.
They all showed signs of why they were hand-picked by the woman they call “Mam Oprah:” They are eloquent and very confident.
“It’s been great to be here,” said 14-year-old Tshepiso. The school has asked that the girls be identified by their first names only. “I feel like I have a great opportunity to achieve my dreams. I feel very proud to be here.”
Pictured above is Oprah Winfrey.