Friday, January 05, 2007

Thank you, Oprah?

No doubt you guys have heard of Oprah Winfrey's "philanthropy" - her building and supervision of a £20m school in Cape Town. I'm not quite sure what to make of this news. I should be happy that someone is investing in education on the African continent, which has the lowest literacy rates in the world. But it's also a shame that whenever someone makes what seems like a generous gesture, one has to search for the pinches of salt that inevitably come with it.

I'm very keen on African Americans rediscovering Africa. It is, after all, the only place on the planet where they won't be minorities. A place they can call their own. Home. A country like Nigeria should be the Mecca, the Medina, and the Jerusalem for people who want to dig into their past. If you look at where most of the slaves originated, they came from the western and central coast of Africa - from Senegal down to Angola. A small number were taken from south-east coast of the continent, where modern day Mozambique is.

African Americans who want to bond with the land of their ancestors should go to these areas. But they all seem to gravitate towards South Africa, hence Oprah starting a school just outside Joburg. I seem to remember that Will Smith was house-hunting in South Africa, not too long ago. When Dave Chappelle had his troubles, he ran away to South Africa. Even those leftist militant rappers, Dead Prez, who one might have thought more egalitarian, went to SA first.

What is this obsession with SA, which they have very few ties to? There are two reasons. The civil rights movement in the US has parallels with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. People of African origin were fighting for fair treatment in both places, one was as a minority population, and the other as a majority population. This kinship is understandable, the blood, sweat, and tears of wrestling for freedom is enough to bind these two peoples together. I hope this is where it ends, and it isn't a case of brotherhood in being victms. A "both our lives are crap" mentality.

The second reason is more grating than the first. These people choose SA because it is convenient. This a country that visitors describe as Europe in Africa, another continent, developed country. African Americans who choose South Africa can eat their cake and have it too. They can do they whole "back to the Motherland" thing, but still live in New York city and Hamptons luxury. They don't have to deal with the reality of Africa as it is today - full of war, poverty, starvation, disease, flood, desertification, deforestation, corruption. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse live in Africa, they just visit the other places.

Why would African Americans want to experience all this in foreign climes when they can just go to any number of their neighbourhoods. Many of you will remember a scene in Farenheit 9/11, where Michael Moore goes to his hometown of Flint in Michigan and speaks to some young people. One of them says something along the lines of, "many of these places (in Iraq) look like our neighbourhoods, and there isn't even a war here." SA gives its African American visitors a tolerable sense of what Africa is like.

South Africa has one of the highest levels of literacy in Africa, it isn't the country most desperately in need of Oprah's charity. This year, the South African government spent £6bn on education, and spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than China and India. £20m for just one school is admirable, but seems to be excessive. It appears even more excessive when one consider's that such a budget would educate huge swathes of the continent. I agree that the price is probably a weak argument, but it still sits uncomfortably with me.

After all is said and done, Oprah is helping her Africa, but her methods and motives stick in the throat.

Interview with Gavin Esler on Newsnight:


Nilla said...

Oprah Oprah Oprah..while I'm not a fan of hers, I still respect her.

Ofcourse they would rather go to SA than Nigeria...Nigeria is a "no-go zone" for Americans.

Yeah she knows many millions will die.....but she spends that amount on just a few :-)

In the end its still her money and she can do whatever she wants.
And I'm sure the South African people are very grateful.

Zaynnah Magazine said...

"African Americans who choose South Africa can eat their cake and have it too." I agree.

I guess it is indeed her own money (and she can do what she wants with it) but why all the song and dance and the obvious craving for recognition?

Atala Wala Wala said...

Hi, Nkem.

Think of it this way. People are most effective when they are doing something that they have a passion for, something that their heart really is in.

So perhaps it would have been better for Ms. Winfrey to donate her money to a project where there are more needy people who are more deserving of it. But the thing is, would she be that committed to the project? Would her lack of commitment possibly imperil the success of the project?

Anonymous said...

I largely agree with your post. But like the others have written, it's her money afterall and it is for a good cause nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

As a commentator on the BBC website aptly put it "Her money would have been better spent if she had built 40 schools of $1million each instead of 1 school of $40million"

Monef said...

This is soooooooo...... annoying! I had an entire post on this subject written out and have simply been too lazy to get round to posting it! It reads almost exactly like yours too!

My issue is not really with the amount of money spent. I am more galled that she picked the richest and most privileged country in sub-saharan africa to receive this bounty. Even if she had chosen to build this school in nearby Lesotho as opposed to anywhere in West Africa, I would have applauded her choice. It is convenient charity.

Anonymous said...

In view, if Oprah found another African leader of the stature of Mandela to make that kind of promise to, maybe, maybe, other African countries would have an Oprah largeese.

The school is like a Harrow or Eton for the underprivileged, not a just a grammar school for the many.

Beyond this, maybe if countries appeared my amenable to African Americans this would spread, at least Stevie Wonder and a few other African Americans have made homes in Ghana.

In fact, I am glad that Oprah has found a very passionate project to invest in mentoring young ladies into positions of leadership - let us see the alumni in 10 to 20 years, then in the light of your views expressed today.

Anonymous said...

So true.. but at the same time.. something is better than nothing... It's better South Africa gets the help than nowhere @ all! Fantastic writeup.. i think this is my first time here... i like! I'll definitely be back.. and thanks for dropping by my blog earlier.. Happy New Year

Anonymous said...

'They don't have to deal with the realities of Africa.... - so tell me, which of us here is dealing with the realities of Africa? And how many of us here are regularly giving from our incomes to educate children we don't know in the wider Africa that really needs it?

It's good that we can ask questions and that the actions of others should make us think, but please can we not get all self-righteous here.

Oprah has been involved in South Africa for a long time. Her magazine, has a South African version and she has done much to champion the cause of women and girl's education in South Africa. Oprah is not saying that she wants to solve the problems of Africa. Who can? But we can all do something. Something for one person may be regularly contributing to send a family of children I will never see to school via an international charity, it may be supporting a local ngo in an african country trying to encourage post primary education for girls. In Oprah's case, it is giving a (rather huge) amount to help create women leaders in South Africa. This is where her heart is and her pocket has followed.

For that I will respect her decision. Indeed, I will applaud it. Can the rest of us please take the opportunity to search our souls and decide to put our money into these things that we apparently care about. ( I also talk about myself here - this is not pointing fingers).

Nkem, I am reading a book at the mo called 'Out of America' by ex Washington Post African-American correspondent who worked in Africa. You would find it interesting......

Jennifer A. said...

I love Oprah's project. The issue should be that many more people will arise and become like her, building projects such as the one she just did for the "underprivileged." Think about this, if there were many more Oprah's out there, there would be more resources going towards other African countries, and hence no one would bother where Oprah put her own money, right? One thing someone already said is that the school is not just for anyone in South Africa, it's supposedly for the underpriviledged, so it's still for a very good cause.

Excellent write-up though...

Unknown said...

Hear, hear!!

Anonymous said...

Nice way of analysing things. I still believe the money is hers to spend.

How many of us have thought of setting up a fund to assist young ones in our own countries?

Toksboy said...

Nkem -let me be upfront and say I have gone off Oprah big time. I used to be a fan, we attended the same uni., took the same courses, tutored by the same tutors, even worked at the same TV station (although she was some years ahead) and therefore I always saw her as a bit of a role model and mentor for me. All this has changed over the past few years. I guess what makes me uneasy is the total genuflection to all things Oprah and her encouragement of such. And I feel for the first time she is actually starting to belive her own hype. No doubt she has accomplished a lot and done a lot but the glare that follows every act makes me weary and cynical.

The very first time I heard about this school was on her show (my wife was watching it) and she said something like " am building the first all girls school in Africa" which led inevitably to all sorts of cheering and whooping by her moron audience.

I was like "the first all girl's school?" Did she just say that? So for me the whole basis of the deal was soured. I praise Oprah however for looking beyond the comfy zones of USA to invest her money but I just wish people would do a good deed to be a good deed rather than turn it into some sort of personal gain or forum.

A lot of people have commented that it is her money and she can do as she wishes which is perfectly true but that money could have been spread throughout Africa which would have had a greater impact (and I am sure Nelson would have supported that as well). Just reminds me of the whole Madonna fiasco.

As regards SA you are again spot on - Europe in Africa indeed. If African Americans really wanted to discover their roots and heritage they know where to look (and it definitely is not in SA). Bear in mind though that to your man on the street in the US, South Africa is in Africa so what is the problem?

Another good blog by the way.

Anonymous said...

Having watched a few interviews and seen a few of the comments, I have written a more extensive commentary in my blog to highlight, first the prerogative of the philanthropist and why this gesture is about real quality and not the spread of quantity as many are advocating.

Anonymous said...

There is just something about her building this school and this interview that just irks me!

And I totally concure with toks-boy.

Anonymous said...

I used to be a huge fan but I agree with everyone that believes she now believes her own hype. Her heart felt generousity has given way to corporate sponsored media frenzy.

She is like the millions of people who want to help "the people of Africa" but who still believe they are above said Africans. Remember when she said in her heart she felt she was Zulu? What a crock of nonsense. I was so happy when professors and the king of the zulus let her know that was rather impossible.

The thing that really did it for me was three months ago on her show when she said"While I was in Africa I put on weight cause I was only eating potatoes and pasta because I couldn't trust the meat" (insert silence and nervous laughter from the audience) and then she said " well u can eat the meat in Africa but I wasn't going to". HOW IGNORANT! Our meat is probably the most organic she will find! I take it she is probably staying in one of SA's fab resorts or villa's and surely the food there is sanitary. Also any git knows that at a certain temperature all bacteria in food is killed off. Ignorant Cow!(Thanks for letting me vent)

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 10:24-she said she is an ashante (a tribe in Ghana) because ashante women are bold and courageous. However, when they traced back her roots,it showed that she is (97%) from Senegal.