From Fashion to Education, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka Knows How to Get Stuff Done
An advocate for “modelling with meaning”, celebrated philanthropist and international model Noëlla Coursaris Musunka is using her platform to empower girls and their communities in her home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Having endured a painful childhood, Noëlla’s world shifted when she won an Agent Provocateur modelling competition in Europe, soon becoming the global face of the brand. Since then, she’s graced the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, and been featured in campaigns for world renowned brands such as Crème De La Mer, Piaget, The White Company and River Island. But it is her work with Malaika, the community-driven non-profit she founded to provide educational opportunities to young women and girls in the DRC, that truly fuels her mission.
Recognised as one of the BBC’s 100 Most Influential & Inspirational Women of the Year and a recipient of a House of Mandela award at the Nelson Mandela centenary, this Room member shared with us how she’s making 2022 a year for Doing Hard Things.
When Hardship Leads to Hope
I had a difficult childhood. I grew up without my parents around as my father passed away when I was 5 years old and my mother sent me away to live with relatives in Europe. I did not grow up in a loving home and didn’t really understand why I was suddenly living in a completely different culture without my mum. The experience made me strong and hardworking though. I made the choice early on to make the best of the situation and ensured I got an education.
I realised how lucky I had been to get an education, and decided that I needed to give back.
At 18, I returned to the DRC and was shocked by the living conditions there. There was hardly any access to water, electricity, roads or internet, and several children, many of which were girls, were out of school. It was really eye-opening for me to see how my mother lived and the difference in my situation and hers. Even though I hadn’t had a happy childhood, right then I realised how lucky I had been to get an education, and decided that I needed to give back and try to help provide people in my home country with opportunities to uplift themselves.
Congo, and Africa as a continent, has so much potential. I wanted to see people in my home country equipped to make changes and bring prosperity to Africa rather than leaving to find it elsewhere. That trip planted the seed for my nonprofit, Malaika.
When I look back, I don’t think my teenage self could have imagined I would be where I am today. I definitely didn’t imagine I would be an international model or that I would have achieved with the Malaika team what we have in the last 15 years. At the inception of the organisation, I didn’t plan for it to be a community-driven ecosystem that can be duplicated in any context. Now it runs a model that empowers communities to develop and make progress themselves, and I’m very proud of that.
Creating Impact Through Malaika
Malaika comprises a primary and secondary school where we deliver a holistic curriculum including STEM, Coding, Music, Art and Physical Education to 400 students. We provide uniforms and two meals a day, as well as annual health checks for all the students. I am proud of the school because we deliver a quality education and are equipping the girls with leadership skills.
I also consider it a huge accomplishment that our community centre serves over 5000 youth and adults each year with sport, health and vocational programs. Out of the centre we have launched Mama Ya Mapendo (Mothers with Love), a business birthed by women who learn to sew at our centre and take complementary classes in key skills such as numeracy, literacy and entrepreneurship. We commission the women to create beautiful items, and profits are reinvested into growing our programming.
Malaika has also built and refurbished 23 wells that provide clean water to more than 32,000 people. It was a basic necessity that desperately needed to be met, as the lack of clean water caused people to suffer from diseases and hampered the education of girls who had to walk for miles to get it. All of these programs are offered for free.
The organisation is particular about its focus on empowering girls through education because it is an area of huge inequality, and the effects of not educating at least 50% of our global population affect us all. There are 130 million girls globally who are completely missing out on school; 50 million of those live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Education is the key to girls and women having opportunities to better their own lives and uplift their communities. Educated girls are less likely to experience child marriage, early pregnancy and child mortality, and educated girls means a more prosperous, healthy and environmentally-friendly society.
It means everything to me to get this started and make a difference in the lives of girls in the DRC. At the beginning of the school year, they are malnourished and have low expectations of their lives. After a short time at Malaika, they have aspirations and dreams. Now Anna wants to be a pilot, Chantal wants to be a writer, Elisee, a teacher, and Louise, a computer network engineer. It brings me so much joy to see their perceptions change like this.
Teach a Woman to Fish
We wanted to build something sustainable and provide long-term solutions and prosperity to the community by giving them the tools to empower themselves.
When we started out, we took the creation of employment opportunities very seriously. We did not want to come and provide handouts that would be relied upon. We wanted to build something sustainable and provide long-term solutions and prosperity to the community by giving them the tools to empower themselves. If people are employed, they can solve their most basic needs and more. But in the rural village of Kalebuka, there aren’t many employment opportunities, especially if you’ve not been educated. And in places where there is no infrastructure, it’s difficult to create work for yourself. That’s why literacy and numeracy lessons are a compulsory aspect of our community centre programs.
Purpose Behind Every Pose
Fashion with meaning is a growing movement, and it’s been amazing to further this positive trend.
While the fashion industry is not one that is usually associated with driving social change, my career as a model helped me in my work as a philanthropist. It gave me a louder voice and some influence in certain areas along the way. Malaika has had some incredible partnerships with brands that have come about because of my presence in the industry as a model. It’s been possible to strengthen our operations and raise the funds we need to offer our programs free of charge because such partnerships make a big impact each year. Fashion with meaning is a growing movement, and it’s been amazing to further this positive trend.
Apart from industry partnerships, other relationships have had a great impact on my journey, and my mother would have to be top of that list. She is incredibly strong, generous, and kind, and she taught me to believe in myself, to work hard with what is in front of me, and to never give up.
Facing a Global Crisis
The past two years have been some of the most calamitous in recent history. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to close our school for a while during the first lockdown, and that was incredibly hard for the team and especially for our girls and the community. The community really suffered as food prices went up and many lost their jobs.
To help meet the needs, we fundraised and distributed food and other staple items such as soap to more than 7,500 people during lockdown. Students used 3-D printers to create 1,200 face shields that we distributed to nurses and doctors in local hospitals, and we commissioned Mama Ya Mapendo women to sew thousands of masks, which were distributed to the community. We also educated the community about handwashing and other best practices for hygiene and sanitation. Despite these ongoing, difficult circumstances, our girls had a 100 percent pass rate in the Year 6 exam 5 years in a row! So in significant ways, we bounced back.
Looking ahead, I want to strengthen what we have at Malaika and to deliver the best quality we can in all areas of our work. We are planning to expand our community centre and its programs so we can offer more vocational training, which will in turn give our community members the marketable skills they need to lift up themselves and one another. We’re also nearly ready to release our Malaika model toolkit, which will allow other communities and organisations throughout DRC and the world to replicate our community-driven model in their unique contexts.
This year, we will be celebrating an amazing milestone of 15 years, and I can’t wait to acknowledge what the team has accomplished in that time.
Don’t Give Up
A positive attitude towards yourself and what you’re capable of will get you very far.
To others who are seeking to bring their visions to life and create a positive impact in the world, my advice is expect it to be a challenge so that it doesn’t take you by surprise. But also expect success if you work hard and don’t give up. A positive attitude towards yourself and what you’re capable of, as well as expecting things to work in your favour, will get you very far.