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Bono inspires, advocates change in Africa

Brian Williams and Bono greet children on a road outside Bamako, Mali.
Brian Williams and Bono greet children on a road outside Bamako, Mali.Subrata De / NBC News

In the heart of Nigeria, in an overcrowded school — where there is no school on rainy days because of holes in the roof — on this hot, sunny day, there were special guests: Gordon Brown, the man who in all likelihood will be the next prime minister of Great Britain, and a 46-year-old Irishman named Paul Hewson — better known by his nickname, Bono.

“What about sexual behavior, do you teach on this subject?” he asks the teachers. “Do you teach people about HIV?"

Bono asks the questions like any investor would.  And that's what he's doing here — he's checking up on the investment he's made — in time, and in the massive amount of money he's raised.

A teacher at the school told me they need classrooms most. They have just nine rooms for 700 students ages 5 to 16.

As Bono sees it, the message being taught here is also important.

“They love America in there,” he says. “They love the United Kingdom, they love the Irish people, they love democracy. In there they have classes about democracy. Not far from here there are madrassas, where they are teaching people to hate us. This is a smart thing for us to be involved in, as well as a wonderful thing.”

But these men soon learn from the teachers the problem at this school is more basic than that. 

“The boys inside the town, they impregnate our girls and do not let them come to school,” the teacher says. “It is not good.”

The problems, when added up, are staggering. There’s not nearly enough money for education. Forty million African children aren't being schooled.

But the No. 2 man in Britain has faith in the rock star from Ireland. Bono brought then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to Africa four years ago. He boldly persuaded the eight wealthiest nations to forgive massive African debt, and he successfully lobbied President Bush for billions. Gordon Brown long ago became a believer in Bono.

“Bono inspires,” Brown says. “He changes people's opinions about what's possible. He has had a huge impact on public opinion right across the world. He doesn't actually seek the glare of publicity for so much that he does. He'll spend hours talking to people all over the world, but he wants to see everybody have the same chance that he's had.”

Bono isn't known here. As he puts it: Not a lot of sub-Saharan radio stations play U2's music. They know him instead for what he has delivered.

And, on three hours sleep, it’s onto the plane and off to Mali — a mostly desert nation with crushing poverty and few modern conveniences. While they still crush corn into meal the way they have for centuries, Bono also knows they are onto something by producing organic cotton. And while Bono is here to check on progress, there's still not enough to bale a nation like this one out of the situation it finds itself in.