The story of love, loss and triumph. The story of humanitarian, model and mother, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka.
This is a tale of generational loss. A tale about how, at the tender age of five, a child lost everything she held dear. She lost her mother, her father, familiar surroundings and was relocated from the country she’d come to know as her home. However, in losing so much, she seemed to have gained everything and insists on sharing it with others.
After the death of her father, when Noëlla Coursaris Musunka was five years old, her mother could not afford to keep her and was forced to give her only child (at the time) away in hopes that she would get better opportunities.
Musunka moved to Belgium, and later Switzerland, and was away for 13 years with very little communication with her mother back home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“It was a tough time… I received two or three letters from my mom and spoke to her only twice on the phone,” says Musunka. On her return, at 18 years, she was so struck by the abject poverty that she vowed to contribute to the education of her brothers and sisters, and would give back to her country.
And she has done so in spectacular fashion.
Musunka has since had a flourishing career as a model and has graced the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire and Elle. The exposure propelled her to pursue her passion for humanitarian and philanthropic work.
When asked about what accolades, such as the one she received from the Nelson Mandela Foundation (in November 2018) and the Enhle Cares Foundation, mean to her, Musunka beams and says: “It’s very special. I’m a pan-Africanist. I love Patrick Lumumba, I love Mandela, I love Sankara. I love all these revolutionary people… who want the best for Africa… The spirit of Mandela is [his] legacy. When people remember Noëlla, I want them to remember my legacy. And my legacy and my message is to give back.”
“I’m very happy that the Mandela family contacted me and said ‘this is what our dad would want. You are a young woman investing in education and that’s the reason we want to honor you’. It’s very touching and I’m not into awards, but this one is very special.”
Since founding the non-profit organization Malaika in 2007, it has grown from a one-room school house to a world-class school that accommodates 314 students of all ages. As the school continues to operate, it plans on adding approximately 30 girls each year.
The Malaika Foundation, which is in the village of Kalebuka, in the southeastern region of the DRC, has also established a community learning center, recreational facilities, 17 water wells and farm land.
This is due to the tenacity and collaborative efforts of 31 Congolese staff members working on the ground in the DRC, and support from a team of 30 volunteers working in the US, Europe, the DRC and other locations.
In Kalebuka, the community plays an integral role in the daily running of the school.
“We have 30 parents a day who come to maintain the school. The whole community is driven. The village takes care of the program and protects it. The community center is good because it’s also important to teach the parents. We have the youth and the parents who come to the community center to learn to read, write, sew, and we have key messages. We also distribute malaria nets.
“So, we have 5,000 people who go there and all programs are free. The school is for free. The staff [members] give of their time, their skills and their money. We have a pro-bono lawyer, pro-bono auditing … [and] we teach the mothers to make the uniforms. We give the girls underwear, socks and shoes.”
The colloquail term ‘say it with your chest’, means to say something with determination, self-assurance and without fear. During her interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA at the Da Vinci Hotel in Sandton in Johannesburg in November, Musunka was wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘Revolution’ across it. The education revolution has swept the village of Kalebuka, in the form for Musunka and her team.
“Two years in a row, we [Malaika School] have passed the national test. The minister of education came to our school and said, ‘this is an excellent school’. We really want to create scientists, businesswomen, politicians, presidents and journalists.”
The developments go beyond the classroom, and focus on the holistic care of pupils.
In 2018, the International Rescue Committee named the DRC one of the countries “most at risk of humanitarian catastrophe”. Similarly, according to the Reuters Foundation, “six of 21 agencies polled, including WFP, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, ActionAid, International Rescue Committee, and Christian Aid, named Congo as the most neglected crisis”.
The ongoing conflict and rampant spread of Ebola are among the reasons the DRC tops humanitarian crises.
For many of the pupils, the school serves a lifeline in a country where little to no assistance is offered during a time of crisis.
“The trust that the parents have in the school is very touching. One of the students came to me and said, ‘Noëlla, I’ve been at this school for eight years, and the school changed my life… I cannot believe that in four years, I will have to leave’. That’s their home. That’s their refuge. Taking care of the school is motivating [for them].
“I want critical thinkers. I want them inspired by the beauty around them. They have music, they have sports, they have leadership classes, they have people from all over the world who come to talk to them,” says Musunka.
Due to conflict and other humanitarian challenges in the DRC, news reports about the nation have predominantly been about discord. Musunka says the socio-political challenges should be viewed with nuance.
“Where we are in the southern east [of Congo], there is no conflict, but Congo is a very challenging country. It’s an economic war, not a civil war. It affects us, in a way, when we have to raise funds because the only press [coverage] that people see is the conflict, the rape, [and] the minerals.
“The question is, who’s behind this conflict? Who’s giving arms to the rebels? Who’s destabilizing the country? Who’s taking the minerals? For me, when I see all of that, the only way to elevate Congo is through quality education… And, these minerals of conflict need to be minerals of peace, minerals of transformation, minerals of elevating the country and being invested in the people.
“Right now the minerals don’t benefit the people, they don’t benefit the health system, the infrastructure, the education, and people live under one dollar a day, and seven million children are out of school.”
The overwhelming reports of discord and conflict about the DRC have not gone unnoticed by Musunka, who is often invited to speak at events about her work. She says that beyond Malaika, she would like to create a different image of Africa.
“When I go on stage, I’m not Congolese, I’m proudly African. And, there are a lot of women who are doing [just] as well on the ground, but they don’t have the opportunity to come [and speak]. It is this woman that I’m representing.”
Educating a girl child is important to her, as she would like to see the narrative and perception of African women change.
“If you invest in a girl child she will be less likely to be affected by HIV. She will invest in her community. She will take care of her family, probably her country and her continent…”
Musunka’s parting words to African women and girls are as follows: “Give 100% in everything that you do. This is our time. This is our call to stand, to have a place in society, and let’s have a voice. There’s a proverb, ‘if you go alone you don’t go far, but if you go together, you go far’.”