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Ride On! Oprah Winfrey!

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey opened a $40 million academy for disadvantaged girls, fulfilling a promise she made to former president Nelson Mandela six years ago. The first black person to be listed by Business Week as one of  America’s top 50 most generous philanthropists said that she "wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light."

Oprah Winfrey’s act is more symbolic in many ways, than philanthropic. It comes in the wake of a steady media diet of African tales of disaster, disease, and mayhem. The world hardly recalls the optimism that greeted the independence of much of black Africa more than 40 years ago.

Oprah grew up in the welfare state. Welfare ensnares the poor in a never ending cycle of poverty.  A young working couple with children might find that their net income after child-care costs would be less than what they could receive on welfare. In this circumstance, accepting aid instead of working would seem the smart thing to do.  On welfare, little progress is made over time. Since most welfare benefits can be used only for food, medical care, and shelter, saving is almost impossible. Welfare increases divorce rates. In 1980, 82 per cent of all black infants in the United States born to mothers aged 15 to 19 were illegitimate.  Paternal desertion is encouraged because aid is unavailable to a woman if the father of her child lives with her.

Adults, quite capable of full-time employment easily figure out that women with several children are able to maintain a higher standard of living on welfare than women or men without dependents. More babies means more benefits. Unskilled teenage women, eager to establish an independent household, find that having a child out of wedlock gives them sufficient income to do so. The attraction of the short-term gain encourages many individuals to choose poverty for life. Industrious individuals who take jobs find their welfare benefits abruptly terminated and their net income lower than before.  Only the most determined recipients, and Oprah is one of them, succeed in breaking out of the poverty trap.

Her rise above the shackles of welfare that gives money but no advice; that shatters black families and robs them of the motivation to be creative and innovative and continually submerges it in the sea of dependency shows that Africans can exit the dark ghettoes of dependency and enter into a new community of light and life. It shows that Africans need to study their ‘prisons’ with a view of finding out how they can work out for their good. From an impoverished childhood that involved lack of access to basic necessities such as water and electricity, Oprah was ranked the 235th richest American in 2005.

Oprah’s decision to invest in a school sheds light on where Africa needs to concentrate her energies: the human mind. The African mind needs reorienting. It has been alienated from its values, intoxicated with alien ideologies and led to conflict between education and national values.

As surely as the sunflower follows the movement of the sun, so does the African look to the West. He feels inferior and believes that his solutions lie elsewhere. If a non African pitches his shop near an African’s shop, other Africans would rather buy their goods from the non- African’s. Why? They believe that “made in Africa” is synonymous to inferiority. No wonder Africa has a lot of trade barriers against fellow African countries. This mindset needs to change! It calls for reexamining whether education in the African continent is relevant to Africa’s needs.

Why do Africans always cry that it is impossible to develop… It is impossible for an African to make it… It is impossible for Africa to join the club of the economically stable? Blaming colonialism and slavery will not extricate Africa from her economic abyss. If Oprah made it, other Africans can make it too!

Oprah demonstrates that Africans can do something for Africa. If Africa experiences international trade disadvantages, she can invest in intra Africa trade. It is very expensive to make intra Africa phone calls compared to making international ones. In addition, Africa slaps high trade tariffs on her fellow African countries but very little on non African countries. This clearly proves that Africa is not ready to reach out to her own. How many political parties live up to their manifestoes?

Apart from her love for Mandela, Oprah’s own African roots prompted her to build the school. Many leaders claim to be Pan Africanists yet they stash huge amounts of money in Swiss bank accounts, outside Africa. They are not confident to invest their own countries. Instead of investing outside; they ought to install favourable investment climates in their countries. If they invest in their countries, they will not allow external and internal forces to jeopardize their wealth. They should bring back the 40 per cent of Africa’s privately held wealth that is detained offshore back at home. Africa is the next frontier for investment! Oprah fulfilled her pledge, six years after she made it. How many pledges do political manifestos in Africa make- which are mere empty rhetoric?

Africa has embraced “easy” ways, accepted poverty as if it had no other choice. More frightening is the continent’s willingness to place its destiny in others’ hands. In doing so, it contracts out development the “specially endowed.” Little wonder, Africa is littered with a host of failed projects.

“There is hope for Africa.  But it will take a concerted effort to realize this hope. Africans must take the lead in bettering their present circumstances and designing their future,” says Opia Mensah Kumah, Chief, Advocacy and Information Management Branch, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“The day we begin believing in ourselves, trusting one another, treating one another with respect, and praising and giving credit to deserving fellow Africans is the day our development begins to take strong roots. The day we guarantee everyone’s economic freedom is the day African capitalism emerges. And more importantly, the day we stop spending billions of dollars annually in defense and start channeling that money into education, health care, and agriculture is the day we really know how to put our money where our mouths are,” says  Basil Enwegbara

Africa needs cheerleaders, and Oprah Winfrey has taken the lead. Negative public perceptions of the continent keep the circle of partners and erode the self-confidence of Africans themselves.  Africa’s hope begins with Africans, but it also includes men and women of goodwill everywhere who can join together to liberate the creative and productive forces that will propel Africa forward.

Understanding that the uniqueness of African problems will require homegrown solutions, risk and learning is the right way to begin. We need more actions than blueprints. We need governments that will free the dead capital, enforce property rights and do less to divide people or obstruct free movement of goods and people. Africans must do these things not to impress anyone; it is Africa’s future that is at stake.

Ride on! Mama Oprah Winfrey. Ride on! Conquering Queen! Continue to lead the way! Continue to prove that Africans are the next donors! No ideology is tall enough; no criticism is deep enough, to hinder the pyramid you are building!



By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer


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