5 November 2021

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka

Meet the model championing global human rights and showing young girls just how much power they have.

Noella wears shirt by FEN CHEN WANG and earrings by POMELLATO.

There aren’t many models who can say that they’ve been named one of the BBC’s most inspirational and influential women. Nor can many say that they’ve received an award from the House of Mandela for their transformational work. But Noëlla Coursaris Musunka can.

Though she has graced the pages of magazines such as Vanity Fair, Vogue and Elle, modelling has actually just been a side hustle for Musunka. Her main job has been working tirelessly to empower Congolese communities – in particular, young girls – through education, while also building and nurturing the areas that her projects touch.

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Musunka joins me on Zoom from her home in Cheltenham. She appears very calm and collected for someone who spends most of her time championing global human rights, acting as an ambassador for The Global Fund (“a worldwide movement to defeat HIV, TB and malaria”), featuring in some of the world’s most influential magazines, and founding and running Malaika – a grassroots organisation that empowers girls through education and health programmes.

Noella wears jumpsuit by HALPERN and shoes by LOUBOUTIN.

“My first project was just to sponsor girls that had been abandoned, or who had been sexually abused,” Musunka says. “So we were paying the orphanage, school and whatever they needed.” Even though those charitable endeavours no doubt made a difference, Musunka soon realised that to have a real, lasting impact, she would have to create her own programme. “So we decided to build our own school in a village where there’s no water, no electricity, a lack of infrastructure.” She continues.

When she was only five, Musunka’s father died suddenly. Without the means to support her, her mother had to send Musunka to live with family in Europe. For more than ten years, she had minimal contact with her mother. After she graduated with a degree in business management, she returned to the DRC. It was then that Musunka knew she had to make it her mission to bring more opportunities to the women of the country and empower young girls to realise their potential.

Noella wears blouse worn as dress and shoes by ROKSANDA, earrings, ring and bracelets by POMELLATO.

And now, 14 years since founding Malaika, that idea Musunka once had has grown into a blossoming community: 104 students have become 400, and classrooms are added each year to help match the influx of pupils. Back in 2010, Fifa helped develop a community centre at the school, which as Musunka explains, has become one of the best programmes that they have. “You cannot educate kids without educating the parents and the siblings,” she says. “We have literacy, numeracy, digital skills. We have a sewing programme where we teach the mothers to make accessories. We teach our mothers to make the uniform. We have parents who never learnt to read, to write. And they’re learning to read, to write, to use a computer. One of the mamas, she’s now working in a shop where she’s a cashier.”

This is just one of the many success stories born out of Malaika. But for Musunka, the biggest triumph is being able to show these young girls their capabilities as individuals. “If our girls were not at Malaika school, now they’re 16, a lot of them [would be] pregnant, a lot of them would have been married. But through education, they understand the power that they have,” she says. And the success doesn’t stop at education. Through Malaika, a community has been born, wells have been provided, which has an impact on more than 35,000 people a year, the students receive two meals a day, as well as underwear, uniforms and “the courage to one day be someone in my community and in the world”, says one of Malaika’s students.

The pandemic has been tough on charities across the globe, and some support has been lost, namely volunteers being able to travel from abroad to help out with the cause. But it’s safe to say that the community – the “all encompassing ecosystem” – that Musunka has created is alive and thriving, empowering more and more girls each day, and inspiring the next generation of women wanting to make a difference.


This story is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here

Photographer Jordan Rossi
Writer Ry Gavin
Stylist Krishan Parmar at Carol Hayes Management
Makeup Artist James O’Riley at Premier Hair and Makeup using MAC COSMETICS
Hair Stylist Asahi Sano at Caren using BUMBLE AND BUMBLE
Manicurist Jessica Thompson at Eighteen Management
Photography Assistants Tommy Francis and Doma Dovgialo

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