By Mary Green for People Magazine
Without Oprah Winfrey, Mpumi Nobiva probably wouldn’t have gone to high school. Now she has a Masters Degree and is an international speaker. Before Oprah entered her life, Nobiva’s family was concerned it would be too dangerous for her to attend high school.
“It’s very common for a girl to go to school and get raped or get kidnapped,” says Nobiva, 25. According to the South African government, 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in the country, and 66 % are a victim of a physical assault. “Our biggest obstacle is, ‘Where’s the closest place that I can go to every day and not have my life threatened or taken away?’ My granny said, ‘If you could go to a boarding school, that would be a dream come true for me, because you would be safe.'”
In 2007, that dream came true when Nobiva entered the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy (OWLAG). Since then, 480 girls have graduated, with another 300 attending the school now. In a country where only about 20% of students attend university, 90% of OWLAG graduates enroll in top universities around the world, including Harvard and Oxford. The school sits on 52 acres, in the small town of Henley on Clip, about an hour outside of Johannesburg.
PEOPLE sat down with four OWLAG alums, and each shared their stories of poverty, struggle and ultimately triumph—with assistance from Mom O.
Nobiva’s life changed when she was only eight. “My mother was 25. She had worked as a prostitute—one of many jobs—knowing she had a child to feed,” she says. “She had been home for months, had this cough. She had a rash that was breaking out. We were really poor (the entire family, including aunts and uncles, lived in a garage together) so we didn’t have a house with different rooms for privacy. One day I came home from school and she sat me down and told me she was HIV positive and she felt like she was going to die. I didn’t know what AIDS was. She held me by the face and she said, ‘You must go on. You have to be different.'”
Four years ago, Nobiva learned just how big a sacrifice her mother had made. “When I was 21, the woman, Ellen, whose house where we lived (in the garage), called me in and told me, ‘When your mother found out she was HIV positive I was so upset with her. I asked her, ‘How can you let this happen? You’re such a smart girl.’ My mother told her a man convinced her that if she had unprotected sex he would give her 300 rand. And my mother said, ‘Mpumi needed school shoes.’ I don’t have to go as far as Jesus to understand that sacrifices have been made for me.”
Like all OWLAG girls, Nobiva has balanced two realities since she enrolled. She calls this “survivor guilt.” When she first visited Winfrey’s home in California, she recalls, “We were eating and I ran off the table. The more I ate, the more I wondered if my family had food to eat in that moment, or if they were eating.”
After getting her undergraduate degree from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC, and a Master’s from High Point University, Nobiva is currently traveling the United States as an inspirational speaker, and even spoke at the White House a few years ago. Winfrey has said she thinks Nobiva could become the president of South Africa one day. “It’s an incredible honor hear Mom Oprah share the vision of my possibility of becoming president, and I think it’s because I’ve always carried the soul and struggle of my people.”
Dlomo grew up in a small one-room shack in the backyard of her grandmother’s employer’s home. “I was raised by my grandmother alongside my mother,” she says. “My mother was there, but my grandmother made the executive decision to take me into her own hands because my mom was young and my grandmother wanted her to go out there and figure herself out. My grandmother struggled. She was in debt just paying for my school fees. My grandmother and I literally shared a bed. She was heartbroken when I left for OWLAG. She said the worst times were at night, when it was time to go to bed. She was comforted by the fact that she knew I was going to get a good education.”
When Dlomo was in 10th grade, her mother died of AIDS. She raced home to a shocked and devastated family. “I was in so much shock,” she says. “Because she was so well—she was healthy and lively and energetic, and I never saw it coming. My priority was making sure that my grandmother was okay. I couldn’t imagine how it feels to lose a child. But I hadn’t registered what it was like to lose a mother. I never thought of dropping out of school, not for one second.”
In fact, Dlomo envisioned traveling even farther away for college. “I was one of the first girls to want to go to study in the U.S.. I remember asking Mom O, ‘Do we get to study in America when we’re finished?’ That was in 9th grade. My grandmother was really scared, because she thought there was a chance that she might not see me again. But she took comfort in knowing that Mom O was going to be there.”
She also received her Bachelor’s Degree from Johnson C. Smith University, before getting her Masters last May from the University of Southern California. Dlomo now works as a producer for Entertainment Tonight Live in Los Angeles. She sees her grandmother as often as possible. “I always say I’m going to name my daughter Kaia, which literally means home in Zulu. I say that because everywhere I am is home for me, and I’ve learned to take that wherever I go.”
Klaas was raised by multiple family members during her childhood, moving from her grandmother, to an aunt, to her mother. In 4th grade she moved in with her mother, who was a domestic worker. “My mom made less than 1000 rand a month, with four kids,” recalls Klaas. “We lived in a two-room shack in the backyard of somebody’s house. I remember the day I found out I got accepted to the Academy. I got to go home (from school) and share this with my mom. I rushed home with this letter, and she was outside our shack, doing laundry by hand. She said, ‘Why are you not in school?’ with so much frustration in her voice. I gave her the letter, but my mom can’t read. I told her, ‘We’ve been accepted into the Academy!’ She walked into our shack and closed the door. I have yet to see my mother cry, but I’m pretty sure she was bawling her little heart out.”
Dreams she didn’t realize were possible came to life at OWLAG. “I remember coming across Marie Curie,” she says. “In her I saw me. I understood that something about her was transcending, and somehow my 12-year-old self knew that was going to be me at some point.”
Klaas, who is a technology specialist at Bank of America, has focused on giving back to youths who need help. She’s a tutor in Charlotte, N.C., and is part of two programs in the city aimed at exposing youths to technology. Klaas says, “My mom and I have a working relationship. She’s not a person who does the whole emotion thing. I think she’s had to be strong for so long that’s all she knows. She does the praying, I do the work. Every now and then, I’m still trying to find the words and courage to come out and explicitly be grateful towards her. I know she’s deserving of it. So I have told her, ‘I’m grateful for all that you do. You did a great job.'”
By the time she was four years old, Mpungose was defending her mom from vicious attacks by her father. “My dad started abusing alcohol and because of that, unfortunately, he was a violent man,” she says. “I’d watch my dad come home drunk every night and beat my mom to a pulp. But my mom would always fight back. I remember from, I think, four years old, one day just developing the courage to join the fight. As little as I was doing, at that point, it was the best that I could. I would kick, scratch, bite, give my all to help me mom. One day, out of nowhere, my mom built the courage to take my brother and I and run. I admire the strength that my mother had, and the courage she displayed to give my brother and I a chance.”
After years of scraping together the minimum to live, Mpungose’s mom knew she needed more education to make a good enough living to support her family. That meant moving away to go to university, leaving her daughter alone and in charge of herself and her brother. “I had to step in as the parent at home. I guess that’s the case for many South African homes. I raised my brother and myself. I would do the cleaning, the cooking, the ironing and go to school. My mom was not just in school, she was training to work at sea, so part of the training process involved her being sent to sea for long periods of time. We wouldn’t see her for six months at a time. That was when the Academy came into my life.”
When she first moved into the Academy, Mpungose says, “I was shocked at how the buildings were so clean, so untouched. I still remember what everything smelled like, what everything sounded like.” Still, she says, “When I was at the Academy, I would miss home a lot. When I’d go back home, having to share a bed with my brother, I’d be happy just to be with my brother.”
Mpungose is now living in L.A., enrolled at USC in their graduate school for architecture. “I’m very passionate about projects for social impact. It’s a field I thought my community, South Africa, needed the most. I’d like to go back one day and build buildings that matter.”
As for her father, Mpungose reveals he died eight years ago. Before then, “I was able to make peace with what the situation was. Attending his funeral and being able to speak to his body and let him know I release him and that I know that he would have done better if he knew better. That’s something I’ve been able to do for myself: to live my life without dwelling in those moments or wishing things had been different.”
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