There is no recipe for success – but if we had to write one, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka should be given the chance to author it. Model and philanthropist, Noëlla turned an early-life personal struggle into a strong foundation for a life of purpose. She is an advocate of human rights, focused on education and empowerment of girls and young women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through her non-profit organisation Malaika. The NGO has a long-term vision, seeking to effect generational change and give young women a frame to become agents of their lives and future.
For Noëlla, a story of success is a story of others thriving. Asked to recall a success story, Noëlla mentions the Malaika clean water initiative and having managed to build wells that make life better for over 30,000 people, removing a daily struggle and clearing the day for school and activities that bring joy and empowerment.
We spoke with Noëlla about her journey so far, her vision for Malaika and the women in the DR Congo, and her definition of empowerment.
Elena Stanciu: You were born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, although you left the country at a young age, you've since gone back. How has this heritage influenced your work and your career?
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka: I returned to the Congo when I was 18, after being sent overseas at the age of five, following my father's passing. I always knew that I was sent to live with relatives in Europe because my mother wanted to provide me with better opportunities than I would have received if I had stayed, namely an education, and I have always been proud to be Congolese and of my heritage. When I returned, I was struck by the vast number of girls who were out of school, and I set out to make a difference in their lives in any way I could. Years later, the Malaika foundation was born. Congolese culture has been a huge influence throughout my life, from the food to the music to the incredible fashion – I love all the bold prints and colourful fabric patterns.
ES: Your work as an activist is quite impressive and touches on many important issues – education for girls and young women stands out. What led you to emphasise this area? In your experience, what are the strongest barriers and challenges activists face when working to empower women?
NCM: I wanted to afford young girls in the Congo the same opportunities that I had when I moved abroad. Gender inequality in education, on a global scale, is a severe issue and an infringement on the human right to learn. The strongest barriers I tend to face are the patriarchal norms that hold young boys to a higher regard than their sisters and the societal status quo that keeps us frozen in the past. We provide a high quality, accredited education for more than 300 girls, for free. But it's about so much more than schooling. I learnt from my own experiences that with a quality education come choices and opportunities to reach your potential and surpass all expectations.
ES: Charitable action and empowerment don't often go together, and Western charitable organisations have been facing scrutiny over the years for the way they handle work in local communities in Africa. How does Malaika avoid the stereotypes of charity work to ensure long-time empowerment?
NCM: First, we employ local Congolese individuals for our local team of teachers and administrators. We have an amazing international team of volunteers, but the school and community centre are run by members of the community and the volunteers on the ground are often parents of our students who want to contribute.
We've worked hard to embed Malaika into the community and that is why we're able to effectively make a change and unite the village of Kalebuka. Parents, children, grandparents, neighbours – they're all either at our school or attending the various vocational and recreational programs at our centre, which serves over 7,000 people annually. It’s a completely community-driven approach, which makes each success all the more meaningful. I'm also passionate about showcasing the positive images and stories of Africa – they most definitely exist but are rarely highlighted. I could probably raise more money for the foundation by saying "there's war and famine," but I decided early on to not let that be the narrative we lead with. When I hear people talk about Africa, I want to hear about all the incredible things we have done and are capable of. There's so much more positivity than is being portrayed. It's the people, the community, who face challenges yet still flourish each and every day.
ES: How do you balance your philanthropic work with your modelling career? I imagine both bring you very different types of satisfaction and they both challenge you at different levels – could you elaborate on this?
NCM: I love modelling and I'm extremely grateful to have enjoyed such a dynamic career, but what I appreciate most is that modelling provides me with a platform to advocate for causes I hold dear to my heart – childhood education and healthcare, female empowerment, and community cohesiveness. Giving back is a moral responsibility, so when partnering with brands, my first consideration is always “how can this benefit others?” Modelling challenges me creatively, while philanthropy is a test of diplomacy – building connections for the prosperity of those you are working to impact.
ES: Would you say there is room for activism inside the fashion world today? How should we start?
NCM: Yes, I think there absolutely is and it's already begun. The fashion world is an integral part of society and serves as a key platform for communicating important messages. Our voices are heard louder than ever before, and the narrative is now more about the human beings behind the clothes – which I find far more interesting. The clothes we wear tell a beautiful story and it's time these stories were heard. We're also currently witnessing an incredible shift where it is now fashionable for consumers to shop conscientiously – for this to not become another short-lived fad, the onus is now on the industry to continue to meet this demand and provide goods that are sustainable and ethically sourced. As an industry, they're not quite there yet, but are on the right track and I'm feeling hopeful.
ES: What is a story of success in your work so far that always stays with you?
NCM: We built our first few wells to provide residents in the village with cleaner, safer water that mothers and children didn't need to spend hours travelling to collect. It was a small project but now, over a decade on, we have 17 wells, 13 new and 4 refurbished, that reach over 30,000 people. Our clean water initiative (in collaboration with the VOSS Foundation) has grown to promote healthier families and reduce the number of children missing school due to illness from drinking dirty water and it makes for a community that can focus on work and education and not on water-borne disease. It's very humbling, because I'm always reminded of that project when I hear about how well our students are doing - if we haven't started that initiative, many could be consistently ill and falling behind, which could impact the bright futures we wish for them.