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Koinange: Oprah provides ray of hope to Africa

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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering the news and analyze the stories behind events. CNN's Jeff Koinange toured Oprah Winfrey's new school with her in South Africa last week.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- I've been covering this continent for a dozen years. There's very little about Africa that I haven't seen, heard, smelled or felt.

As a reporter, I've been in parts of Africa that can only be described as Godforsaken, covering stories as varied as famines in Niger, civil wars in devastated regions like Darfur and the victims of civil wars in Uganda and Sierra Leone and mass rapes in the Congo.

I've been up close and personal with the most bizarre characters in war-ravaged places like Liberia, people who preferred to go into combat dressed in ways more fitting for a circus than a battle zone and rubbed shoulders with child soldiers barely old enough or tall enough to be carrying weapons of war.

And in nation after nation, one recurring image will always haunt me -- the faces of those children scarred by war, famine, disease, children forced to become adults in the blink of an eye, children who will never be able to just be kids again.

These are times that I, as an African and as a reporter, ask myself, "How much worse can things get for my people?"

But there are rays of hope. We saw one last week. Oprah Winfrey's decision to spend tens of millions of dollars of her own money to help educate children she's never known in a land so far away from her own. (Watch Oprah describe how "everything has come full circle" Video )

I remember meeting Oprah back in August in Soweto, a sprawling ghetto in Johannesburg, where she'd been visiting some of the finalists for her school. She wanted to know how each of the girls lives and what kinds of homes they come from.

I remember one girl's mother, overcome with emotion. So touched, she was, over Oprah coming to her humble home. "You know what," she said. "I was thinking angels are white and they have wings and we only have angels in heaven, so now I can see that we are living in this world with angels. Oprah you're an angel, angel from God."

Oprah instantly burst into tears.

Many are quick to criticize Oprah's philanthropy. Why spend so much on just one girls' school, they ask? Why couldn't she have spent that money building several schools throughout Africa? Why not keep the money in the United States and help educate American kids instead? Is this school just for blacks?

"This school is open to all girls who are disadvantaged -- all girls, all races who are disadvantaged," Oprah responds. "And we all know that the most disadvantaged in this country is with black people. We have white girls in this school, Indian girls in this school, what you call colored girls in this school, and we have black girls in the school, Hindu girls in this school, Muslim girls in this school, and Christian girls in this school."

Of course, Oprah didn't have to do this, investing in this leadership academy for girls, young women she's now all-but adopted as her own.

Back in August, just after she'd announced the first class of her academy and the girls were busy jumping for joy on stage, Oprah turned to the girls' parents and grandparents and guardians and said something I'll never forget.

"For many years, people always asked me why didn't I have children? Why didn't I have children? Now I know why I didn't have children. Because I now have all of these daughters, all of these daughters and I want you to know that these are now our daughters."

This past week, as Oprah gave me a tour of her school, as we walked around the beautifully manicured gardens and pristine buildings, she seemed to be at peace with herself.

"This is me," she said, "These girls are a reflection of me, and I'm 100 percent certain that this school will produce the leaders of tomorrow."

There's an African proverb my mother passed along to me that goes something like this: "Education is like a garden -- you water it and it blooms -- you neglect it and it shrivels up and dies."

In this tiny corner of the Africa, one woman is busy watering the gardens of tomorrow one girl at a time.


Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey exults in the opening of her school for girls south of Johannesburg.

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