The powerful philanthropy of Noëlla Coursaris Musunka
As told to Clara Baldock
International model Noëlla Coursaris Musunka has been featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair, and in campaigns for Crème De La Mer and Max Factor. In 2007, she founded Malaika, a nonprofit grassroots organisation that empowers Congolese girls and their communities through education and health programmes. The foundation operates in the village of Kalebuka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coursaris Musunka is also an ambassador for The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
“I’ve always advocated “modelling with meaning”. For me, this means using the opportunities that come with being a model to make a real difference: to speak up on behalf of those who cannot. As models, our job is changing to become more relevant to the times we are living in, and as a mother, I’d like my daughter to grow up seeing fashion images that show that one’s value and worth extends far beyond surface level. Since I started out, I have noticed a shift in fashion storytelling; more and more often, women are featured for their accomplishments, not just their appearance, and we’re seeing more shapes and diversity too.
“I was born in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When I was five, my father passed away and my mother didn’t have the means to take care of me, so I was sent to live with relatives in Europe. During the 13 years I was away, I had very little contact with my mother – just a few letters – but I did have the opportunity to get an education. I went to business school and began a career as a model, first appearing in a campaign for Agent Provocateur after my friend entered me into a competition.
I’ve always been fiercely proud of my Congolese-Cypriot heritage, and I love seeing other women of African descent, like Thandiwe Newton, using their position and voice to pave the way for others. There’s so much creative talent coming out of the DRC at the moment. When I returned to Congo aged 18, though, it was a shock to see the living conditions there. My mother and the people in her community had no running water, electricity or infrastructure, and young girls especially had very little chance of going to school. It was a particularly poignant moment for me, realising that I could have been one of these girls, and the idea for Malaika was planted in my heart.
I started simply by sponsoring 10 girls to go to school; over the years Malaika has grown into a whole village ecosystem – a school, a community centre and an agriculture programme. My advice would be to dream big, but start small. At the school we provide free primary and secondary education. At our community centre we use sport for social change and offer vocational education, with classes in health and literacy. Our Mama ya Mapendo programme offers sewing and embroidery classes, so that women can improve their skills and find independent ways of supporting themselves. We’ve also built or refurbished wells to provide clean water and created a sustainable, organic farm and garden so that the school’s students and staff can have two meals a day.
My work with Malaika is deeply rooted in my own story and personal experience. Although my childhood wasn’t easy, these experiences gave me both a powerful sense of gratitude and drive to make sure others have the same opportunities that I did. This principle is at the very core of what we do – empowering the next generation of change-makers by ensuring they can access education. After all, education is freedom. By going to school, girls can envision a better future for themselves and that gives me a sense of purpose; Veronique hopes to be a pilot, Abigael an IT engineer and Christine a doctor. It also begins to form a cycle, because each student then understands the importance of education for future generations, helping to create a community in which girls can not only achieve their own career prospects, but also reinvest what they have learnt in other people.
Malaika is proof of what can be accomplished by using the platform that fashion provides. The industry, and the people that work in it, are learning to recognise the responsibility that comes with having the audience that they do. Being part of that world has brought a lot of value to my philanthropic work. I have met influential people and been able to collaborate with amazing brands – such as Roksanda Ilincic – on projects that raise awareness about Malaika and help generate funds. Embracing how seemingly different areas of my life – model, philanthropist, mother – can intersect and benefit each other, helps me to juggle everything.