The Times Interview: Noëlla Coursaris Musunka

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka: I was just five when Mum gave me away

Having grown up in poverty, model Noëlla Coursaris Musunka wants girls in her native Congo to get the chances she didn’t have

Natasha Poliszczuk

January 4 2018, 12:01am, The Times

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka was sent to live with relatives in Europe at the age of five BARTEK SZMIGULSKI

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka was sent to live with relatives in Europe at the age of five

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka is talking about her earliest memory. “It’s a blank before the day I went to wake my father from his nap, but he wouldn’t wake up. I remember him in the bed, that’s it. Not long after, I lost my mother when she had to give me away. The shock was so intense that I lost everything that happened before then — even my language.

“It’s life. I left the Congo with holes in my shoes. But it’s OK; now I am very happy. And I have always been very strong.”

Even if I lost everything I couldn’t give away my kids

Musunka’s story reads like a film script. She was born in Lubumbashi in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sent to live with relatives after her father died and scouted as a model in London while studying for a degree in business management. Then she embarked on an international modelling career.

This became a platform to launch her non-profit organisation, Malaika, which empowers Congolese girls through education. Its projects include a school for 280 girls, a community centre and nine wells in Kalebuka, near Lubumbashi, and there are plans for a clinic. It has established its founder as one of the leading voices in education for girls in Africa and an ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

“In a way, Malaika is the story of me,” says Musunka, who lives in Cheltenham. “The problem in Africa is that women’s education is not a priority. So when my father died my mother didn’t have enough education to earn money, so she couldn’t take care of me. She gave me away because she wanted to give me a chance.”

Aged five, Musunka boarded a plane alone. She spent her childhood being shuttled between relatives, first in Belgium, then in Switzerland. “When I say I was educated in Switzerland, people think of boarding schools and rich families. It was not like that at all,” she says. Musunka was brought over to work as a maid and cleaner. There was no email, and over the course of 13 years she spoke to her mother on the phone only two or three times and they exchanged just a few letters. There were no presents at Christmas and no one celebrated her birthday.

However, there was school, where Musunka excelled. “When you have nothing, you know that if you fall there’s no one to pick you up. So you have to stand. I resolved very early on that I would study and work and be independent.”

Musanka at the school she founded in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Musanka at the school she founded in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Her mother, who still lives in Lubumbashi, is “so, so proud” of her daughter and has celebrity status when she visits the school. Musunka also has children, JJ, seven, and Cara, three, with her husband, James Masters. Being a mother has put a new perspective on her own childhood. “If I lost everything tomorrow I don’t know if I could give away my kids. I freak out when I’m on a plane because I’m terrified of something happening to me because nobody loves you like your parents. So I was disappointed when my mother remarried and had four more children. I thought, ‘Why are you having more kids when you couldn’t keep me?’ But she went through such hard times. She lost everything.”

Musunka took a break from modelling “to give my children what I didn’t have”. This didn’t mean taking a break from her “third child”, Malaika. From the beginning her name was on every paper and every email concerning the organisation. Nothing escapes her notice, she says, from every dollar spent to the absence of a single pupil. She wakes early to liaise with people in the DRC and logs back on after her children’s bedtime to speak to New York, where the charity is based. Between her early and late calls her phone lights up with Whatsapp messages — on the day we meet, she receives photos of pupils having a dressing-up day.

“If you are lucky enough to have a voice you should use it,” she says. She gives short shrift to celebrities who come to the DRC for photo opportunities, but she’s full of praise for her team, all but one of whom are volunteers, and for the rapper Eve, who said she wanted to help and promptly booked a flight to the DRC, and her fellow Global Fund ambassador, the actress Charlize Theron.

Musunka founded Malaika in 2007, when the organisation sponsored the education and living expenses of a group of girls. She talks fondly of Deborah, the first girl she sponsored, who still calls her regularly. Yet she knows that she faces an uphill task. “That a country can be as rich as the Congo and have seven million children out of school . . .” She shakes her head in wonder. “When parents do have money they educate the boys, but if you educate girls there’s less pregnancy, less HIV infection, less poverty. We need to elevate the education of women. It empowers them. It moves the country forward. It matters.”

In Africa we need more women in power and in politics

Even with the donors in a deeply traditional country such as the DRC you cannot simply build a school without the support of the community. Political instability and a problematic infrastructure present extra challenges. Before they laid a stone in Kalebuka, Musunka sat down with the village chief. By all means build a school, he said, but build it for girls and boys. Did he want his daughters to get married and not work, Musunka asked. Or did he want something more for them? “I told him I wanted to see the day when a woman was the village chief.” (She’s still waiting for that.)

Plus, there was no electricity, no water and no road. Musunka lobbied for electricity for the region and, with the help of the Voss Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the bottled water company, built a well. Hundreds of people came to collect clean water every day, so they built another well.

Every solution they came up with exposed another problem. In the DRC life expectancy hovers around 36. One of the school’s pupils died from malaria during a Christmas break. When another girl was absent from school, her teacher went to visit her at home to find her in a critical condition after being run over by a motorbike. Her parents couldn’t afford medical treatment, so Malaika paid.

After another bout of building work there will be 340 pupils at the school. Girls can enter a ballot for a place when they are five if they live within the catchment area. Students are provided with everything from shoes to underwear and two meals a day, in a region where a family would struggle to provide that. Pupils’ health deteriorated during the vacations, so they started holiday camps. The curriculum encompasses everything from the most basic skills, including how to use a toilet (most homes don’t have one), to recycling, IT and yoga. Students achieve record-breaking national exam results.

There is also a community centre, built in partnership with football’s governing body, Fifa, offering education, health and sports programmes to the wider community. Fifa was so impressed that it plans to roll out community centres in other areas. Musunka’s focus is widening. This may or may not be related to her seven-year-old son’s insistence that she has “done enough for girls” and should focus on the boys.

“I feel a little uncomfortable talking about girls’ education and empowerment as it’s such a trend now,” she says, “but in Africa we need more women in power and in politics. Even now, when I receive teachers’ CVs, 70 to 80 per cent of the applicants are men, and I’m like, ‘I want a woman.’ ”

She set up the organisation in 2007

She set up the organisation in 2007

Being in a minority because of her sex is something she is familiar with. “Philanthropy is predominantly a man’s world. To be a young African woman who has set up a foundation — there aren’t many of us.” Yet she seems unfazed by pretty much anything, including delivering a TED talk when eight months pregnant (“I thought I was going to give birth”) and appearing alongside Bill Clinton on his global initiative panel in 2012. “They give you a script, but President Clinton never follows the script. He asked me about the Congolese government. I told him, ‘I am a daughter of that country. If I have anything to say to them it will be said behind closed doors, not on stage.’ Afterwards,” she breaks out into a huge chuckle, “Clinton told me I was very diplomatic.”

Musunka marked Malaika’s tenth anniversary last year with a global conference tour. She has since spoken at most conferences bar Davos, which she will “probably” tick off this year. Despite regular speaking invitations she tries to stay at home, strategising in between the school runs, homework and cooking dinner. For the moment that means writing a manual of operation for Malaika, her “gift” to those keen to know the secrets of the project’s success (there’s talk of similar institutions in Kenya and Liberia).

There is one proviso: they cannot call it Malaika, for the same reason she refused to name the project after herself. “It belongs to everyone. I’m someone who can facilitate and make things happen, but the children — they are the real heroes, not me. They grab this chance. They believe they will become someone.”

Remind you of anyone?

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Louise BartlettComment