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April 13, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 15
 
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Not Thinking Straight by Madelyn Arnold
For 10% of raisins in the African sun
by Madelyn Arnold - SGN Contributing Writer

When I was a child I used to imagine what I'd do if I had, oh, a billion dollars... I'd give my siblings all kinds of presents: Chatty Kathy dolls, robots, toy trains -- with those perfect little trees and people and buildings -- candy and brand-new clothes. Chemistry sets they could blow up; teddy bears for the really little kids; and games too. Not that they needed this stuff. Well, we could have used more vegetables.

But, then, in my teens, I saw what had been the small town of Berne, Indiana, after a tornado had steamrolled through, and my daydreams matured. I wanted to bring back its houses and schools. Bring back the dead.

RAISING THE ROOF
Well, the 664th richest billionaire in the world - once Miss Black Tennessee - Oprah Winfrey, hasn't yet raised the dead, but last year she raised a part of New Orleans by erecting a block or two of houses, furnishing them and directly moving people in. Work the government couldn't or wouldn't do. And now she's built in South Africa, as she had vowed to Nelson Mandela she would, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls. It has accepted its first seventh and eighth grade classes.

And what a school it is! There has been no such boarding school in all of Africa. Only the most rudimentary education had been available to most girls. On her trips to South Africa, Ms. Winfrey had encountered girls hungry for learning and the things it can bring. She encouraged those with top marks to apply to her school, gave them qualifying tests, and later interviewed them - promising any who graduate the opportunity of a college education. All in all, pretty remarkable.

CAMERA READY
In a film about this process, the girls were quizzed about their lessons, their lives, and their hopes for the future. Most have no running water; perhaps subsist on one meal of oatmeal a day; and with everyone sleeping in one bed, or on the floor. None were well off. They wanted schooling desperately; sure it could bring prestige, security, and political power. This school is astonishingly modern... at the least they could be the equal of their educated brothers.

Or could they? It's not as if girls are prized in that society (they're not always prized in ours); still, Mandela (and the United Nations) has fought to empower women.

And these will be among the adults we hope will remain in South Africa, adding to the sum of its teachers, lawyers, doctors, scientists - not replacing their fathers and brothers, but adding to that pool of educated individuals out of which can come a stronger Africa. A self-governing Africa that can better care for itself - if those fathers and brothers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins don't just sneer: "Aren't these - only - women?"

NOTES FROM MY CRYSTAL BALL
And what of those Africans who will look at this modern school and see only luxury and indulgence... what might such envy inspire? Envy is a powerful sin.... I grew up watching it power operations like the Klan. (How anti-Semites talk!)

Then too, the film shows us how the girls hang on each other's necks and waists, draping themselves around each other like scarves. Here, in our country, touch like that is curtailed around the age of five. It is a cultural matter how one may touch others, but I'd like to remind Ms. Winfrey that even among African schoolgirls, touch does not always remain innocent.

I've had what I'll call girlfriends from Thailand and Laos, from southern India and Kuala Lumpur, who come from cultures with similar touch and who were sent to all-girl schools; most graduated [one was thrown out of school, like me], and each one came out at school, frightened and hunted. All mentioned that this constant touching became difficult after they recognized their attraction for girls.

NO SYSTEM IS PERFECT
The practice of separating the sexes for education has much going for it: e.g., young boys speak up in the primary grades and young girls push forward in mathematics, etc. However, this segregation puts tremendous pressure on Gay kids and, at the same time, increases temptation (and suspicion). It is often true that the staff of such a place starts imagining homosexuality exists where it doesn't. But that would all be in the future. This school just opened in January.

Ms. Winfrey has never been anything but reasonable and supportive of Gays - but is it too soon to remind her that at least 10 percent of those girls will be drawn to other girls, possibly to the exclusion of men? And does she realize that in many African countries homosexuality is a capital offense?

I hope against hope that Ms. Winfrey will quietly champion this small but vulnerable segment of her students. They will need her as nobody else has ever needed her. Be gentle with them, Oprah; help them to help themselves. World without end, amen.

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