I am half Cypriot, half Congolese. I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My father tragically passed away when I was 5 and my mother didn’t have the means to take care of me. She made the difficult decision to send me to live with relatives in Europe so I would have more opportunities. My childhood was extremely tough. I was not raised in a loving environment and I had very little means of communication with my mother during these 13 years, except for a few letters. I threw myself into my education and achieved qualifications. I returned to Congo when I was 18 and I was shocked at the conditions my mother and neighbors were living in. There was no running water, electricity, infrastructure, technology, and little access to education, especially for girls. I realized these girls could have been me had my mother not sent me away. This trip completely opened my eyes to the gift I had been given by being able to get an education, despite it being painful to separate from my mother and our home. This sparked a fire in me. I knew I had to do something to enable girls like me in my home nation to be able to access quality education.
I champion girls’ education as being the key to unlocking the potential of our next generation and society as a whole. Both Malaika and I have been propelled onto the global stage through their success and impact. Malaika was recently recognized internationally through winning the World Literacy Forum’s World Literacy Award. I have been able to share my insights about education at a number of world-class forums including the World Economic Forum in Davos and at universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and MIT. I have also worked with UNICEF, numerous global corporations and am a Concordia Advisor. I was named one of the BBC’s 100 Most Influential & Inspirational Women of the Year. More recently, I received an award from the House of Mandela at the Nelson Mandela centenary celebration.Throughout my modelling career, I have held the value of ‘modelling with meaning’ and I have collaborated on projects with brands that help support or raise awareness of my philanthropic work.
What were the biggest initial hurdles and how did you overcome them?
We faced many hurdles at the start of setting up Malaika. There wasn’t really any development from when I visited DRC aged 18 to when I founded Malaika. There was still no infrastructure, no running water or electricity, and the rural village of Kalebuka where Malaika is based was a challenging context in which to start a foundation. We overcame this by building into our provision the holistic needs of the community. So over the years we have built or refurbished 21 wells that serve more than 30,000 people with clean water. We have brought power to our facilities sustainably by using solar panels. We petitioned the government to build a road for access to the site, and it took time but we now have 70 percent of our road!
The cultural context presented a hurdle in that people did not hold the viewpoint that girls needed to be educated just as much as boys did. So over the years we have used our community center and sport for development programs to educate the community about equality and social cohesion and we now have very supportive parents.
Raising funds was a hurdle and continues to be challenging. As an international model I was able to utilize my platform to help raise awareness and generate some partnerships with brands, and I continue to do so. I work entirely voluntarily for Malaika. I think we have also worked hard to present a positive picture at all times and inspire people about what they can do to make an impact. We offer donors the option of sponsoring a student and make this experience individual, sharing stories with them about their student’s progress. I believe this approach has made a big difference in our ability to create a group of loyal supporters and raise the necessary funds.
More recently, fundraising and all operations have been tough as we were hit badly by COVID-19 and the restrictions and unique challenges it brought.
What books are you currently reading?
I read a lot of books with my children. We love books about real people’s stories, such as a book we recently read about Harriet Tubman. It’s so special to be with my daughter and son as they learn to read while learning together about amazing, inspirational characters. I also sometimes reread Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started?
1. Not to stress about the small things and that different problems will arise, and they can feel like a big deal at the time but usually they don’t end up having a big impact.
2. Also, that it’s ok to say no. When you’re first starting out you want to accept all the offers you get, and it can lead to you being too busy to focus on what’s important.
What advice would you give to an upcoming youth or talents locally and internationally?
1. Believe in yourself and in your potential. The world needs you and your passion so don’t give up when you hit a setback.
2. Find a mentor, someone who is several steps ahead of you who can encourage and advise you to help you reach your goals.
3. Keep giving back. Volunteer, fundraise, or donate, if you can. The non-profit sector has so many essential services for those who are disadvantaged and if we can all help them in some way, we can make a huge difference.
Social media handles
Malaika (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, Youtube) @MalaikaDRC
Facebook @Noella Coursaris Musunka
Instagram @Noella Coursaris Musunka