There’s sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of Cottrell Hall’s International Concourse, where Mpumi Nobiva has set up shop to start her day.
With her laptop, phone and bag full of textbooks, she looks like other college students at High Point University with project deadlines. But talk to her, and layers of an unexpected story start to emerge.
Her South African accent is both beautiful and noticeable on this North Carolina campus. So are the conversations she has with friends who pass by when names like Oprah Winfrey or places like Washington, D.C. pop up.
And there’s her Starbucks order – the Oprah Cinnamon Chai Tea Latte.
It’s almost always the same, and it’s more than a caffeine boost. Proceeds from the drink help fund the school she graduated from in South Africa. It’s called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and it changed her life.
The school helped her rise from poverty and losing her mother to HIV/AIDS, to coming the United States for college and working toward her master’s degree in strategic communication at HPU. And it taught her how to share a painful past in a way that makes a difference.
“I’ve realized that no one else in this world has your journey and your story except you,” says Nobiva. “And even though it’s our currency, the thing we have that’s most valuable to share, some people are afraid to use it. But surely we went through our pain so that somebody else would not have to go through it.
“Surely it matters.”
Finding Light in Darkness
Over the years, Nobiva has become an international speaker and storyteller, and there are many asking her to share her story. People like Winfrey invite her to speak at places like the United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C., where she met First Lady Michelle Obama backstage.
But Nobiva remembers where her love for stories first began. It was in the pews of a South African church, where she sat next to her Grandmom on Sunday mornings.
“I would drive my family crazy repeating all of the Bible stories to anyone who stopped by after church,” she says.
Those days planted a seed for her future despite a bleak beginning.
Nobiva was born to a young mother in a shack outside Johannesburg, and her father was never part of her life. Her mother worked jobs away from home to make ends meet. Eventually her grandparents took her to live in the back quarters of a house in Johannesburg, where her grandfather “fixed cars he could never hope to drive.” She found strength in her Grandmom, who raised her, and visits from her mom on weekends.
When she was 8, her mother’s visit lasted longer than usual, and the two sat down for a conversation that any adult would grapple with, much less a child.
“She told me that she had HIV, and that she was dying from it,” Nobiva remembers. “She told me things were going to change, and she knew she was going to die, but she wanted me to not be afraid.
“She was heartbroken, but at the same time, she was somehow optimistic when she talked about my future. She said she knew I was going to be different, make better choices and work very hard in life.”
Nobiva’s world changed that day. Life was soon filled with hospitals, suffering and daily sickness. It led to inevitable heart break. She was left an only child who didn’t know her father and had now lost her mother.
“That was hard, really hard,” she says. “But somehow I was able to become calm and centered. I think it was because of that conversation with my mother.”
That moment became a lighthouse in the storm – an anchor that grounded her.
“My mother spoke directly to me about the truth,” Nobiva says. “Many people were afraid to talk about HIV, but she spoke to me like I would understand, even if I couldn’t articulate it.
“Because she spoke to me, I knew it was part of her story, and I didn’t feel attacked like someone does when people don’t talk about these things. I felt included. She recognized my spirit and my humanity.
“Because of her, I felt seen and regarded.”
The Power of Narrative
Nobiva made promises to her mother during that conversation.
Be good to your Grandmom, her mom had asked her. Do well in school. Never stop believing in God.
She committed to those as she grew up and excelled in school. Her teachers noticed.
When Oprah Winfrey announced she was building an academy for girls in their country, they told Nobiva to apply.
She sent in many applications and essays and caught the eyes of recruiters. She passed through rounds of interviews before she was invited to what may be the interview of all interviews, even if she didn’t know it at the time.
It was in a building filled with other girls vying for a precious spot. One by one, they were called into another room. When it was Nobiva’s turn, she stepped inside and saw two chairs facing each other. A woman was sitting in one.
As she walked closer, she realized who the woman was.
Her heart welled in her chest as she sat down across from the lady on TV, as she knew her then.
Winfrey introduced herself, then looked the 13-year-old girl in the eyes and asked her, simply, “Why do you deserve to be in this academy?”
Nobiva could have talked about her good grades or good behavior.
But she knew her roots, and she knew that people connected with stories. So she told her story of poverty and losing her mother and finding strength to one of the most influential people in the world.
And she was accepted.
The Next Step
What happened next seems like a whirlwind.
She scored academic achievement marks at the academy, emerged as a leader and even came to know Oprah as a personal mentor she calls “Momma O.” She graduated and came to the United States for college.
She completed her undergraduate degree at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte in May 2016, where Oprah gave the Commencement address with Nobiva and another alumna of the academy among the graduates.
As an undergraduate, Nobiva had already become a difference maker. She received community awards and honors while scoring the highest GPA in her major and publishing a powerful research project, titled “The Power of Narrative for Oppressed African Women.” It focuses on women who’ve been raped but find purpose in their pain by sharing their stories.
She began to share her own story and that of others around the world. In the midst of it all, Winfrey connected her to a host family in High Point – Bob and Lavern Brown. Their work in progressing the civil rights movement is known around the world – including when Bob Brown served as a close confidant and consultant to the family of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, while he was imprisoned.
When she visited the Browns in High Point, she saw purple all around the city – at the airport, the restaurants and on the T-shirts people wore.
“Then one day I was coming from church with my host family, and I noticed the buildings and the brick (architecture), and I said, ‘This place is beautiful – is this a school?’
“It was so beautiful and so stately. It made me feel like I could do great things, and I knew then that I wanted to be here.”
And that’s where her story brought her today – an internationally sought-after speaker who keeps Winfrey posted on her successes, from the classes she’s taking to the next speaking engagement.
To Nobiva, sometimes it’s jolting. Her life has been filled with things meant to pull her down.
Instead, she used it to lift herself up.
“The very thing meant to kill me and be the biggest barrier has brought the value to my life. That’s what’s been incredible about my story,” she says.
“I have a place in the world that’s my place, my story and my truth. It helps me show others that what was dark can become the light.”