Oprah has chosen South Africa as the birthplace of this intensely personal work because "it is the country of new beginnings, only 12 years out of Apartheid, and also because of my deep love for Nelson Mandela and all that he means to this country and to the world." In a country where violence against females is epidemic, where many girls under the age of 10 have already been raped, where the estimate for HIV infection in children and adults is one in eight, and more than 36 percent of black women are unemployed, often illiterate, and subsisting in tin shanties, a chance like this for a young African girl is akin to suddenly finding yourself on a rocket to the moon.
Creating this school has not been easy, logistically or socially. From the beginning, she struggled to explain her vision, a school that could "contain the emotional, spiritual selves of the girls." Because these girls come from poverty, she was first given designs she felt looked like a chicken coop, then a barracks. Planners advised that these African children were not accustomed to much—many sleep on dirt floors in housing with no water or electricity; some share a bed with relatives. Oprah was told that the simplest environment would be a luxury to them, that they would need only basics. She sent the plans back. "I said, from the start, I am creating everything in this school that I would have wanted for myself—so the girls will have the absolute best that my imagination can offer." In 2002, she announced her plans to build a leadership academy and donated $10 million for the school. Her donation has grown into more than $40 million.