Noëlla Coursaris Musunka encourages women in Africa to write their own stories
Josefina Bonsundy Nvumba 10 November 2018
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but sent to Europe when she was just five years old when her father died, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka didn’t see her mother for another 13 years.
When they finally connected again, Noëlla had forged a unique path. Having blazed trails in both philanthropy and fashion, she has appeared in the likes of Vogue, Elle and Vanity Fair, launched a transformative non-profit for girls’ education back in Congo, and raised a family.
Josefina Bonsundy-Nvumba, Founder of Rootencial, spoke to Noëlla about her African roots, sources of inspiration, and ambitious vision for the future.
Tell us a bit about your background, Noella. You’re of Congolese and Cypriot descent; how do you relate to those different identities now?
I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My father was from Cyprus, and my mother was from the DRC. My dad died when I was five years old, and my mum couldn’t afford to keep me. So, I was sent to Europe and grew up there.
My African roots are very strong. I love my continent, I love my country, and I’m a feminist. I believe that people like you and me can showcase a different image of Africa and rewrite the narrative. Africa needs to write its own stories.
Tell us about your journey to where you are today. You had a brilliant career as a model. How did you get into that?
I have been discovered through a competition at Agent Provocateur that my friend entered me for, and where I ultimately was selected to lead one of their campaigns. I was a model for 10 years, working between New York and London. I still do some modelling work now, actually. But it has to be modelling with a meaning – a story and a brand that I’m passionate about. It’s fantastic to see how modelling is changing; different faces, different bodies, different colours. Modelling is more about personality these days, and that’s really good to see.
I took breaks from modelling when I had my kids. My son is almost eight years old, and my daughter is four. The fact that I grew up without parents meant that it was very important for me to be a mother, to give absolutely everything to them. My children often come with me to Africa.
“Africa needs to write its own stories.”
Tell us about the work you are doing at Malaika. What inspired you to focus on girls’ education particularly?
Malaika is a nonprofit grassroots organization that I founded with a brilliant team back in 2007, seeking to empower Congolese girls and their communities. 90% of what we fundraise goes to programs. We have an amazing school for 312 girls and run a community centre where we offer programs in literacy, sports, and computer science. We offer this to both the youth and adults free of charge.
We also teach life skills to women in the community such as sewing, hand embroidery and financial literacy. We built nine wells and run small agriculture projects to feed the students. We also offer different activities like sports and music to help inspire these young girls. We’ve distributed 9,000 malaria nets, too.
We need to empower women and girls in Africa. We don’t hear their voices often enough; we don’t have enough women in key jobs. They are strong, they are powerful, they multitask; they are our mothers! We want to see them shine. By giving them a platform for high-quality education, we can help build the next generation of thinkers and leaders of the African continent.
'We need to empower women and girls in Africa. They are strong, they are powerful, they multitask; they are our mothers! We want to see women shine.'
My mother’s story is what inspired me to launch the organization. She wasn’t educated but I know that it might have been different if she was. Maybe she wouldn’t have had to send me away to be looked after by others after my father died. We need to invest in our girls and empower them. My personal experiences – particularly that first visit back to DRC after 13 years – also helped inspire me to launch Malaika.
What are the greatest challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?
We work in a village with no water and no electricity, so of course, we have a lot of challenges. I don’t like to use the word “poor” because Congo is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of minerals and agriculture, and education needs to be the first investment for any nation.
What’s the advice you wish someone had given you when you were growing up?
Never give up. Sometimes, when you have nothing, you know that if you fall there’s no one there to pick you up. So you have to work hard, be independent, and never give up.