Shakira’s Colombian War

April 3, 2010 07:37

The Latin pop star on why she’s spending millions on schools in her home country and beyond.


Everyone knows Shakira as the hip-shaking siren of pop music. If you don’t know what I mean, go to YouTube and check out the music video for “Hips Don’t Lie.” The song, recorded with Wyclef Jean in 2006, topped the charts in 55 countries, including the U.S. Her latest song, “Gypsy,” is a similar tribute to her famous curves, only this time she gyrates for shirtless tennis god Rafael Nadal.

But Shakira—born Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll—is intent on making her advocacy work as well-known as her hips. Her cause? Educating impoverished children by building schools and community centers in some of the poorest neighborhoods in her native Colombia, and convincing other Latin American leaders to invest in early childhood education.

When I catch up with Shakira, she’s taking an afternoon break from her tight recording schedule in order to visit a charter school in East L.A. “I always had the intuition, even as a little child, that I was called for a big project,” says the singer, now 33-years-old, as we ride in the car. “I am sure that many children feel that way but they don’t have the environment that is conducive for them to exploit their potential to its fullest. I was lucky I had those things: caring, loving, educated parents and a good school.”

That luck—combined with hard work—has allowed her to promote her causes at the highest levels. President Obama met with her last month in the Oval Office to get her advice on education for Latino children. In the past six months, she has addressed the Oxford Union, appeared in the opinion pages of the Economist, and was asked by the Brookings Institution to be the celebrity behind its proposal to create A Global Fund for Education, modeled after the Global Fund to Fight Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS.

She knows about deprivation from her own upbringing in the extremely stratified city of Barranquilla, where I also grew up. Located on the Caribbean side of Colombia, nearly 50% of people in this port live under the poverty line. More than 43% of children do not have access to early education, and less than 20% have access to the Internet. What will happen to those who live in extreme poverty and receive no schooling is predictable in a country with a protracted civil conflict and an economy fueled by drug trafficking: “Being a militant or a drug trafficker are the only options.”


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