Her life reads like an award-winning movie, one with drama, romance, tragedy, and hope. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to a Greek Cypriot father and a Congolese mother, at the age of 5 years old, her father suddenly passed away. Without financial or educational resources, her mother sent her to live with relatives in Belgium to get the education she did not have the opportunity to achieve. Intelligent, resilient and beautiful, Noella Coursaris Musunka excelled at school and graduated with a business degree before taking the modelling world by storm after her friend entered her into a modelling competition. From Vogue to Agent Provocateur, she travelled the world where she soon discovered a platform from which to share her commitment to human rights.
After visiting the DRC for the first time in 13 years as an 18 year old, and seeing firsthand the poverty and lack of opportunity for women, Coursaris Musunka promised herself she would one day make a difference. She was destined to create something that would change lives, that would have meaning, and in 2007 that day came when she founded her organisation Malaika.
Coursaris Musunka, who cites Nelson Mandela as her role model, wanted to see every girl in the DRC have the same access to the education she was fortunate to have. Malaika’s projects have achieved life-changing outcomes and include a school for 280 girls, a Community Centre which provides education, health, and sports programs to approximately 7,000 youths and adults each year, and Infrastructure development which led to the building of 9 wells that supply fresh water to 18,000 people. There are also plans for a clinic.
An inspiration to women, a sought after public speaker as one of the leading voices in education for girls in Africa, tireless in her work, she is also a devoted wife and mother. GCT had the privilege of chatting to Coursaris Musunka about how her childhood shaped her future, her commitment to the girls and women of the DRC, the importance of education and the amazing works of Malaika.
How did your parents meet? Do you have any ties to your Cypriot roots?
My grandfather came from Cyprus to the Democratic Republic of Congo where my father was born and where he met my mother through a mutual friend. Sadly my father passed away when I was just 5 years old, but from what I know about him he and my mother were very much in love. There is a vibrant Greek community in the Congo and I think the celebration of different cultures was reflected in their relationship. Many of my friends and family are in Athienou, Cyprus, so I like to visit as often as I can – and my children love it there! I feel very grateful to have the support of the Greek Cypriot community in the work that I do; I recently spoke at the Cypriot Embassy in London on Malaika and the progress we have made these past twelve years.
Was there a particular moment in time where you felt the significance of education?
My mother did not have any money and was not well educated, so she made the painful sacrifice to send me away to gain the opportunities she never had. I went to Europe and I didn’t see my mother for 13 years, but when I returned to the DRC, I witnessed the poor conditions she had been living in and said to myself that I would do something to help both her and other women and girls in the community. That was the turning point for me, however, I have always recognized the value of an education, even as a little girl.
What helped you cope with the years away from your mother?
When you have nothing, you know that if you fall there’s no one to pick you up so you have to stand tall. I resolved very early on that I would study hard, become independent and constantly set high goals for myself.
You were born in DRC, educated in Europe, founded Malaika in New York and now live in London. In your heart, where is home?
My primary home is in Cheltenham, England, as that is where I live with my husband and two young kids, James and Cara, but I travel to the DRC about twice a year as I like to work with our team on the ground there. I was born in the DRC and no matter where I am, I take the country with me, but it’s even better when I’m physically there; I can visit with my mom and spend time with the students, our wonderful staff and the community in general. Everywhere I have lived holds a special place in my heart; Munich was where my son was born and Belgium was where I spent the immediate few years after my dad passed away, but I also love the hustle and bustle of both New York and London. I’m lucky to have amazing friends all over the world.
What does Malaika mean? Was it hard to decide on a name for your foundation?
Malaika was named in memory of my late father, Georges, as Malaika means “angel” in Swahili. Malaika empowers through education and health and, like my father, we believe in the enormous potential of the Congolese people to bring about lasting, positive change on their own terms.
What have you been most proud of achieving since Malaika was created?
Before Malaika, the village of Kalebuka in the south-eastern region had no access to electricity, clean water or educational facilities. We really started from zero in terms of funds and now we have built a free school for 314 students that offers a holistic curriculum of STEM, information technology, health, civic education, and the arts, as well as a community centre, which serves more than 7,000 people, where the local youth and adults can attend vocational classes, play sports, or even take a literacy course. I’m proud of Malaika’s evolution because I did not come from a wealthy family or a ‘name’ – I began this with my gut and my heart.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Working in a village with no water and no electricity, of course, brings a lot of challenges, but we try to turn those into action. For example, we have built 17 wells that impact over 30,000 a year, greatly reducing the risk of waterborne illness and disease. Our team at Kalebuka is incredibly hard working and dedicated to the transformative power of education, and our aim is to provide the resources necessary to empower them to achieve these goals.
Which accolade has meant the most to you and why?
It was amazing to be invited to the 100 Years of Mandela gala celebration of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, hosted by his family and to receive the award from his daughter, Dr. Maki Mandela. To be honoured by the family of an individual who I so admire, who changed the world and valued the power of education was truly humbling. She introduced me as part of the family and said that her father would have loved to see his legacy come to life through people like me — and an incredibly special moment To have them recognise the work of Malaika, including how our students have grown into ambitious young ladies and how we’ve gained the trust of an entire community, meant a lot to me.
What is coming up next for Malaika this year?
This year, we finally completed the construction of the Malaika School, which has taken us over 10 years to build. As construction of the school is coming to a close, we are going to begin building three new classrooms at the community center, which at the moment is helping over 7,000 people, far beyond its maximum capacity. Our programs in health, literacy, vocations, and sports, will be able to reach everyone who needs them
Is there a story or experience from meeting all the students that have been part of Malaika that has deeply impacted you?
Each one of the students at Malaika has grown so much over the 12 years we have been working with them, but the story of one girl named Carol has stuck with me lately. Carol is a vivacious student who walks 45 minutes to school every day, she is never late and is always smiling. Her commitment to her own education and future at such a young age resonated with my own experience. We try to help our girls to grow their capacity to dream and become whoever they want to be.
What inspires you?
I’m most inspired when I’m on the ground in Kalebuka at Malaika and I’m able to see the impact on our girls – from nutrition to physical fitness to intellectual growth. Now that I am a mother of two children of my own, I feel inspired to always put my kids first in order to foster their development and growth.
Who has been your biggest role model?
Nelson Mandela. I love people with character and personality who leave a strong legacy and message – and who are not afraid of giving that message. My favourite quote of his is, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – I take this with me everywhere.
What did you think of the modelling world and what was the biggest lesson you gained from your years of modelling?
My modelling career has given me an expansive platform to build a wide, philanthropic influence. I follow my mantra – to model with meaning. With opportunities and connections through my career, I have been able to raise awareness for causes I believe in as a mother, a feminist and a believer in the intrinsic human right to education, health and opportunity.
What is one piece of advice you received along the way that has stayed with you?
Conforming has never led to greatness, so don’t worry about trying to be like everyone else around you. What makes you different and what drives you are the qualities that will serve you best when you’re older.
What do you love the most about the DRC and the Congolese?
I greatly admire the resilience of the Congolese people. The story of the DRC is often characterized by tragedy, but I am always amazed at the profound dignity of its people in the face of a lack of infrastructure, inadequate access to health and unequal access to education. They are my heroes. I definitely learn more from them than they learn from me.
How do you achieve a work/life balance?
When I’m with my kids, I give them 100% of my attention for homework, dinner or anything else they need. I didn’t have my parents growing up so being a mother is something I cherish, but when they are at school, I shift my focus to my Malaika team and the other areas of my work. From The World Economic Forum at Davos to kids’ birthday parties – I always have something to do!
Who would you love to get on board as a Malaika ambassador or collaborator?
We are lucky to have incredible ambassadors for Malaika, notably the singer/songwriter Eve, who we love collaborating with. She joined us in Kalebuka for the inauguration of our e-library, as well as performing at a fundraising event, and she took the time to speak to the villagers and to understand the challenges they face on a daily basis. We also have Khaliah Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, and her son, Jacob as ambassadors, who visited the school years ago to place the first stone of the school and have been fervent supporters ever since. We don’t normally seek out celebrities though – our team at the school and all over the world are so passionate about what they do that they stick with us through it all. If I had to choose someone else with a global platform to join the team it would be Trevor Noah – he has the most positive effect on anyone in his presence!
How can people contribute towards Malaika?
In the next few years, we will have started to see the older girls graduate from our secondary school. We want to be able to offer them mentorships and eventually see them attending university. We feel a responsibility for the girls that extends far beyond the walls of the Malaika School and they deserve all the help we can give them in fulfilling these goals. We have sponsorship programs for our girls, as well as different ways of contributing towards meals, school supplies, and a great many other essentials. Anyone who would like to help can look at our website, malaika.org, for more information on how to get involved.