It has been two years since we last sat down with Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, the 2013 Ambassador of Africa Fashion Week London, to discuss her role and her philanthropic work in her native DRC. This year she was back as the event’s 2015 Brand Ambassador, and the new school year has just in Kalebuka, where the former model continues to empower the community. Perfect time to sit down for a chat about her work over the past two years.
We are getting closer to our tenth year anniversary,” Noëlla beams, “and it has been a journey. Every year, there is a new commitment – you have to pay salaries, make sure there’s enough food for two meals a day and everything is ready for the school terms.” With only the local staff getting paid and 91% of donations going to the project, fundraising is also a priority. “It is not easy to raise money, it’s non-stop, so it is fantastic we could open the school for the fifth year this year,” she adds.
“It’s fantastic to see the girls learning and growing into change agents. They have big dreams of what they want to do and how they want to give back to the community. It is always a joy to go to Kalebuka and see the community more confdent. Every year we build something new and the project is growing. And you feel attached – to the girls, and to the staff.”
It is these strong bonds built over the last eight years that have also led to the rebranding of what was once the Georges Malaika Foundation, named after Noëlla’s late father, to simply Malaika, meaning ‘angel’ in Swahili. “The foundation is beyond Noëlla,” she offers. “At the start, it was a personal story, but everyone has so much involvement that I wanted them to feel that it is their foundation too. We also wanted to make it shorter, catchier, and just easier for everybody.”
Perhaps even more remarkable than running with the same team for almost a decade is the fact that the foundation has had donors who have now become lifelong friends who visit Kalebuka regularly. “Last year we had a little gathering of 30 people; out of 30 people, 20 were those who came to the Congo from overseas to see the school,” enthuses Noëlla.
With the collective eforts of Noëlla, her staf and donors, so much has been accomplished by the foundation, not only since its inception in 2007 but also in the last two years. In 2013, the foundation partnered with FIFA to build the Kalebuka Football for Hope Centre, a community centre offering education, health, entrepreneurship and sports programmes to youths and adults. With programmes on health education and outreach sessions, such as Village Health Worker training, the Mothers First family planning and Drop Malaria programmes, the centre is another source of joy for Noëlla.
“We have both boys and girls at the centre and teach them different programmes. We have between 350 to 500 people a month at the community centre,” Noëlla explains. In the coming year, the centre will launch the Sustainable Pathways project, a vocational training programme to teach out-of-school youth how to access valuable self-sufficiency skills through conservation farming, entrepreneurship and enterprise development.
Another recent development which Noëlla takes pride in is being the first black African woman to stand alongside former US president Bill Clinton at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative’s opening and closing plenaries in Morocco to speak about her philanthropic success and the future of Africa. “I don’t know of many African women who are young and have a foundation recognised on an international level, so I feel proud of such a huge achievement, of being a New African Woman,” Noëlla effuses.
If Noëlla’s defnition of a New African Woman – “determined, smart, elegant, quick thinker, who gives back to the society and is passionate in everything she does” – is anything to go by, she fits the bill just right. On top of that, add mummy duties (her daughter Cara is one-year-old and her son James Jr. is five), role model duties, and her brand ambassador role: Noëlla is one multi-faceted yet busy lady.
“I cannot go to speak all over the world or do loads of modelling, so I’m really choosing what I can do, and I go for the things I really love doing,” Noëlla says. “I love to see Africans rising, and if people have a good heart, I’m always happy to come to help.”
One such person she is keen to help is Nigerian fashion entrepreneur Ronke Ademiluyi whose Africa Fashion Week London initiative is now in its fifth year. “In life there are people who criticise and people who make it happen, and we have to give credit to Ronke who tries hard to make it happen,” Noëlla explains. “I’m setting up an example and I would love to have a lot of leading Africans to help too, so we can support emerging African designers who can make a sustainable business out of their passion.
“We’re starting to see more celebrities wearing African print. It would be great to see more, but Rome wasn’t built in a day,” muses Noëlla. With that we turn to the perennial debate about diversity on international runways. While recognising the surge in black and mixed race models in the main – stream, Noëlla is also wary.
“My only fear is, sometimes you see a black girl everywhere for a year or two, but then they disappear, so I am really advising these girls to save their money and plan ahead what they want to do. I just hope the girls can have a good career for five years minimum and not just be a trend for a season.”
As for her girls in Kalebuka? “Every girl is different and they all have different names, different stories, different aspirations, and they all strive in different ways too,” Noëlla explains. “The start of every new school year is always a highlight. I tell my kids it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And I hope they understand the journey and take over from me,” she says, before adding, with a cheeky laugh, “ They have no choice!”
“I’m trying to do my best; I do everything with passion, love, determination and hard work,” she says when asked what it takes to be a mentor. “I also have my values. I’m not going to do advertising for alcohol or cigarettes, as I don’t only have the schoolgirls looking up to me, but also a lot of young people all over the world. And I think anybody in their own life has to try and be a role model.”
Mother, former model, brand ambassador, role model, fundraiser, angel at large, what is next for Noëlla? “I want to be more of an ambassador for brands I really like and believe in, brands that are emerging in Africa, brands I can feel a connection with that can support the school too, and maybe in fve to 10 years I’ll have my own TV show. I don’t know, I’m a type of person that lives in the moment.”
The current moment is time for her to pick up James from school. In two days time she is off to DRC to plan ahead for the new school year. It’s just as well Noëlla chooses to live in the moment, as each moment seems to be packed with action in her bid to make the world a better place, one girl at a time.
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