An inspiring conversation with Nelson Mandela put Oprah on the path to build her dream school for girls in a country still healing from apartheid. "From the very beginning, I said to Nelson Mandela, 'I want to create a school for smart girls who will lead this country into glory,'" Oprah says.
In 2002, Oprah announced her plans to build a leadership academy for the girls of South Africa. "When you change a girl's life, it's not just that life," Oprah says. "You start to affect a family, a community, a nation. I'm telling you, women are going to change the face of Africa."
Soon, construction began on 52 acres southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Hundreds of workers poured their hearts into a campus built to inspire greatness. The 28 buildings include a theater, library, dining hall, classrooms and dormitories.
For years, Oprah worked with architects Jeremy Rose and Jonty Doke of Mashabane, Wilson & Associates, as well as Nagle Hartray, to finalize the plans on everything from brick color to artwork.
"Every detail mattered to me because what I know for sure [is] love is in the details," Oprah says.
With every decision she makes, Oprah keeps her future students in mind. She knows that many sleep on dirt floors or share one bed with multiple members of their family. Many also live in housing with no water or electricity. "I wanted to go to places and find these girls where opportunity is shut down because of poverty and all of the other remnants of apartheid," Oprah says.
Ziphozonke lives with her grandmother in a neighborhood where just walking down the street can be dangerous. She wakes up at 4 a.m. most mornings to walk through her community to the bus stop. It's an hour ride to school. She always prays she won't be attacked. "You're a brave girl. You have to really love school to do that," Oprah says. "I do," Ziphozonke says.
Oprah hired 500 artists to create paintings, sculptures, murals and much more to give the campus new life.
Instilling a love of South African culture in her students was a priority for Oprah. Here she admires beautiful handwoven baskets in Durban. "I wanted these girls to appreciate where they come from and to be inspired by their own culture," she says.
When the girls arrive on campus, the first thing Oprah shows them is the mural of dancing girls along the wall outside of the theater. "These girls represent you," Oprah says.
The mural takes their breath away. "Looking at the pictures of the girls, they were so beautiful," Lesego says. "And the nice thing is that they were not skinny because I'm not skinny!"
Everyone knows Oprah loves books, so it's no coincidence that you can't walk the Street of Learning without seeing the library. The girls are awestruck by the library—hand-carved by local woodworkers—which will hold about 10,000 books. To help fill the shelves, Oprah asked each person she invited to the academy's opening to bring the books that mean the most to them.
Because Oprah has always wanted a fireplace in the library, she makes sure there is a beautiful and inviting reading area around the glimmer of a brand-new fireplace.
It's time for the girls to move into their new dorm rooms and Oprah announces roommate assignments. Thando and Eunice are excited to find out they will be living together.
In a country where even the poorest students pay school fees and buy their own uniforms, Oprah wanted to make sure everything would be provided for her girls. Oprah personally chose the designs of their uniforms.
In the dormitories, each with its own small kitchen and terrace, Oprah's touches abound. Every tile, every doorknob, has been Oprah's specific choice. Each girl will have her own spacious closet and desk. "Come on in, and welcome to your new home," Oprah says. "Every single thing that you see here was chosen by me for you because I care so much about you."
The girls are overjoyed, with many of them, like Sade, jumping and collapsing on their soft, new beds. "At home I sleep on the floor and it's really, really painful, especially when it's cold," Buhle says. "But in the dorms we sleep on the bed and in the bed is so very, very soft."
To add another special detail to their rooms, Oprah chose the finest linens—soft white sheets and pillowcases bearing an embroidered O.
When Oprah visits Ntombifuthi, she tries one of her chores. Because her home has no running water, the 13-year-old is responsible for getting water from a pump several times a day and carries the large bucket on her head. Oprah doesn't make it very far. "I literally could not do it. I could not physically even pretend to do it and had to take the bucket off my head," Oprah says. "I was carrying half of what she was carrying."
Many of the girls have no running water in their homes, so they are used to outhouses and bathing under a small spigot of water. Oprah made sure the bathroom was perfect for every girl, from the showers to the vanities down to the bright orange, green-and-yellow tiles.
"The bathroom was one of my favorite parts," Lesego says. "At home we use little plastic tubs."
Because of their families' poverty, many of the girls do not eat regularly. Oprah makes sure they'll be well fed and that meals will always be a relaxing experience. She chooses the perfect china for her girls. "I believe that when you are surrounded by beauty, it inspires the beauty in you," Oprah says.
For the girls' first Christmas at the academy, Oprah teams up with party planner extraordinaire Colin Cowie—who is known for his attention to detail—to ensure that the girls have the most beautiful Christmas dinner possible.
"When we walked into the dining room, it was so beautiful," Lesego says. "Usually with my family we don't have Christmas trees because they're so expensive, and we had, like, this huge Christmas tree. It looked stunning."
Oprah makes sure her girls have the best food possible, bringing in her favorite chef, Art Smith, to cook up a holiday feast the girls will never forget.
The art is breathtaking and the dorms are luxurious, but the most important detail Oprah saw to in the building of her dream school was the formation of a family. "I always dreamed of having a family and [at] this academy, I'll have friends that care for me and that love me," Eunice says.
"I've spent most of my life being hurt and being abandoned," Buhle says. "Being here makes me feel very much loved."
And Oprah's found that the love she put into all the details of the academy has returned to her tenfold. "I really felt like I was giving this school to you all, but what you have given me is so much more."