Page last updated at 15:07 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Pop queen Shakira back to her roots


Shakira taking education to Colombia's poorest children

In the face of a decades-long insurgency, the international singing star Shakira has been back to her roots in Colombia to help disadvantaged children get the education they deserve. The BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani went with her.

To travel with multi-million-selling pop star Shakira is to travel behind tinted windows, on private planes and on Shakira time - always at least an hour behind schedule and always stopping for autographs and photos. It involves long waits while she has hair and make-up touch-ups before emerging from cars, planes and buildings.

But at the centre of the superstar entourage is a young Colombian who is disarmingly friendly and passionately eloquent about education.

And education was the reason we travelled with Shakira to the north-west border province of Choco, deep in the Colombian jungle. It is remote and poor.

Shakira at her school in Colombia
Education provides a lifeline to children caught up in civil conflict
And it's an area devastated by the civil conflict that has ravaged the country for nearly half a century, forcing three million Colombians to flee their homes.

We were heading to a school Shakira has funded.

She told me: "One hundred per cent of our kids that we have in our school here have been displaced or have families that have fled their home towns."

Shakira has been here several times and the reaction is always the same: frenzied rapture. She is surrounded by exuberant children as she makes her way down dirty, pot-holed streets, past wooden shacks and open sewers.

But the welcome she gets is not just because she's a pop star. In an area of grinding poverty she provides a lifeline.

'Abandoned people'

Battling through the crowd she leads me to the best-kept building in the entire village: the school funded by her charity Fundacion Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet Foundation, named after her first hit album).

Villager says thanks to Shakira
Villagers in Chaco send their own message to their benefactor
In a white-washed classroom, children in neat uniforms sing along with the pop star. Some of these children are orphans, most are traumatised by years of fighting.

Shakira's foundation provides uniforms, equipment and food for 750 pupils. It's their only daily guarantee of a meal.

I ask a teacher why the government doesn't provide such things. "You'll have to ask the president that," she says. "He should pay more attention to the plight of the people of Choco. We've been abandoned."

But, thanks to Shakira, Colombia's government seems to be taking notice.

Hundreds of miles away in Barranquilla, the singer's hometown, a ceremony is taking place to inaugurate another school she has built (she used $4m of her own money and coaxed $2m more from Howard Buffett, son of America's billionaire investor Warren).

Presidential recognition

We are in La Playa, a rundown suburb of a scruffy city.

But the strangest sight is not the full orchestra playing in the stifling auditorium; rather it is the bristling presence of hundreds of police and soldiers: Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is here to recognise Shakira's work.

, February 2009
Shakira and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe unite pop with politics

He has had death threats in the past - a consequence of his tough stance against leftist Farc rebels and the violent conflict.

And although his government has made major gains against rebel forces, some in Colombia say security has come at the expense of social justice.

So pinning a medal on Shakira provides them both with a valuable photo opportunity: for Shakira comes official endorsement, while the president is seen to embrace a more caring agenda.

Shakira's high-profile persistence has helped make education more of a priority in a country where violent conflict has set the political agenda for decades.

But Colombia may not be enough: she has global ambitions for her charity work.

Shakira's fame has given her the power to help people in her own country and around the world. It seems to be a driving force for her and may even be a passion greater than music.

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