Lilongwe - American pop queen Madonna broke ground Monday on a girls academy she is building in Malawi, billed as a "gift" to the country from where she has adopted two children.
"After seeing all the hard working Malawian women who are looking after families and communities, I realised how much they deserve to be educated," said Madonna.
The 51-year-old star cut a cake, planted a tree and turned the sod alongside her eldest daughter Lourdes, 13, at a colourful ceremony attended by about 1,000 locals on the outskirts of Malawi's administrative capital Lilongwe.
"The school will help girls from vulnerable backgrounds to move forward. They will use the principles of spirituality for kids," said the singer who is a devotee of Jewish Kabbalah mysticism.
According to a brochure for the Raising Malawi Girls Academy, the school will be a "leadership institution to prepare future women leaders" with 500 boarders including two impoverished girls from each of the country's 28 districts.
It will "focus on mathematics and science which traditionally have failed in Malawi and elsewhere", the brochure said, saying that the school would be a gift to the people of Malawi.
"The logical project was to build a school that will create future women leaders, doctors and surgeons," Madonna said.
The singer was entertained by traditional dancers and musicians, in a event attended by senior education officials and community leaders.
Malawi's minister of education, George Chiponda, presented the singer with the national flag and urged her to continue supporting the country's education system.
"When you have money I want you to come back and build us a university," said Chiponda.
"This year 5,000 students qualified for university entry but only 1,200 were admitted due to lack of space," said Chiponda.
The school is modelled on a similar academy built by US television talk show host Oprah Winfrey in South Africa.
In 2006, the chart-topping musician adopted a baby boy, David Banda, who is now three-years-old.
In April, the recently divorced singer and actress came back into the country to file for the adoption of Mercy James, who was placed at an orphanage following the death of her mother.
The adoption of three-year-old Mercy was initially denied but later granted after an appeal.
Madonna is also funding several charities in the small southern African country, including homes for children with AIDS.
She has already built a multi-purpose community centre at Mphandula village, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Lilongwe, which looks after more than 8,000 orphans from scores of villages in the area.
Malawi is one of the world's poorest nations, with more than half of the population of 12 million living on less than one dollar a day. The singer has a personal fortune estimated at several hundred million dollars.
Construction of the academy will take two years.