Who run the world? Girls, as long as they have education, and healthcare. Few things are more worthwhile than helping girls in the Congo gain access to education, and it’s hard not to be effusive when talking to the woman championing the cause – Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, model, philanthropist and founder of the non-profit Malaika. The mother of two is collaborating with ROKSANDA and The Outnet to release a capsule collection, and of course, a portion of the sales is going straight to Malaika.
Harper’s BAZAAR speaks with Noëlla to find out what she thinks about the collection from Serbian designer Roksandsa Ilinčić’s eponymous label, the people that she’s collaborating with, and her humanitarian goals for the future.
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- You are a passionate advocate for education as a method to uplift underprivileged communities. What is the impact of education, and what makes it so important?
Education has a ripple effect that transforms lives, not only for the individual but for their families and communities as well. An educated woman is less likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy at a young age and less likely to be bound to an abusive partner due to economic dependency. They are more likely to give back to their families and to their neighbourhoods, as well as inspire others to attend school and cultivate their own curiosity and ambition. Education opens doors that lead to fulfilment and independence, as well as the tools needed for girls and boys to become future agents of change. The power of learning is boundless because it amplifies human capacity.
- Was there a particular moment in your life when you realized that you wanted to dedicate yourself to making change in the world, or had it always been in the back of your mind?
I’ve always wanted to have an impact on the lives of others, but my mission to advocate for education for young girls worldwide first originated when I returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo at the age of 18. I was born in the DRC but was sent to Europe to live with relatives when I was five, after my father died and when my mother had no way of caring for me on her own. When I returned, I was immediately struck by how many girls were not in school and the vulnerable living conditions of the community. It was then that I decided to open a school to fight the gender inequality in education, give girls opportunities similar to those I had abroad, and promote a healthier village.
- Aside from a love of fashion, what brings you and Roksanda together? What about her inspires you?
I admire Roksanda’s fearlessness with regard to patterns and fabric and her disregard of the status quo, but I think our bold attitudes really brought us together. She is also a mother, a businesswoman, and committed to holding the door open for other women. She lives life the way she designs—unabashedly determined and daring!
- Out of the capsule collection’s 17 pieces, which ones are your favourites? Why?
The multi-colored dress I wore in the campaign cover shot is a favourite of mine. The pattern is unique and the colors are beautiful. I also love the loose-fitting burgundy dress; it has a beautiful, elegant shape, with incredibly unique and unusual sleeves. You wear a dress like this and you don’t have to think about what to wear with it— it’s a statement in itself, and it inspires the wearer.
- How do you hope to further your goal of empowering girls around the world through this collaboration?
Through Malaika’s collaboration with THE OUTNET, we hope to inspire a new audience that adores THE OUTNET and Roksanda’s designs to learn more about gender inequality in education, particularly the importance of empowering young girls to achieve their dreams and disregard societal norms that would restrain their aspirational spirit.
- The artwork in the backdrop the creative campaign for this collection was contributed by the girls from the DRC who are beneficiaries of Malaika. How did that idea emerge, and what does it mean to you?
We wanted to showcase the talent of girls in the DRC in this campaign in order to highlight the power of female unification through art. Imagination is vital to both childhood and fashion design, and it was exciting for us to have our girls’ art be appreciated alongside such accomplished work, reaffirming for our students the heights their own creativity can take them.
- What does fashion mean to you? Is it purely aesthetic, or is fashion’s impact more multi-faceted?
Fashion energizes progressive discourse in the midst of cultural stagnation. Whether a politician or member of the royal family, what one wears can say much more than even words, which is why clothing choices are examined meticulously. Forward thinkers always have a prominent place at the table with regard to fashion design, which is why it is often ahead of, and therefore influences, other aspects of society.
- How does your extensive and admirable modelling career pair with your philanthropic and advocacy work?
My modelling career provides a platform that I parlay into our grassroots non-profit, Malaika, as well as The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, for which I am an ambassador. I’ve gained tremendous experiences modelling, but I like to use it to bring attention to childhood education and health. Due to the support we’ve received internationally, Malaika has built a free school for 314 students, where we offer holistic education and nutrition programs. We’ve also constructed a community center with vocational and sports programs for thousands of parents and children in Kalebuka, and have built and refurbished wells which provide clean water for over 30,000 residents.
- How would you describe your personal sense of style?
I love bright colors and interesting patterns, which is why I’ve responded to Roksanda’s designs so enthusiastically. Clothing should be fun, inspiring, and remarkable, and serve as an extension of one’s personality. I also enjoy wearing African fabrics, as there is never a shortage of beautiful hues that make a strong statement!
- You are a mother of two. What is the most important lesson you want to teach your children? Is there anything they’ve taught you?
My two children are undoubtedly the most incredible part of my life, and I’m truly honored to be the mother of such young philanthropists. They’re already looking for ways to help others and love spending summers in the DRC, assisting around the school campus and befriending the students and children in the community. I’ve always strived to teach them that we are all connected and that kindness is the most important quality, and one that we must never lose. There is strength in giving and strength in respecting differences, but a kind heart is at the root of it all. My children, in turn, have taught me to aspire to be my very best self, because they deserve nothing less than the best I can be in order to guide them well in life. My daughter has also unknowingly taught me about girly tendencies—she’s a real fashionista, and loves to dress up and wear lipstick. I was very much a tomboy as a child, so I’m discovering a whole new thing through my daughter.
- How do you switch roles from mother, to model, to philanthropist and advocate?
I multi-task constantly. When my children are home, I focus on them, from getting them ready for school to having dinner together, helping them with their homework, and reading to them before bed. When they’re at school I work on Malaika and my other projects. With Malaika, it’s not just me—I’m fortunate to work with an unbelievably dedicated team. I speak with the Malaika school staff in the Congo every day and am kept up to date with everything happening both there and at the community center. I also travel quite frequently for work, but I try to keep these trips as short as possible so that I can rush back to my kids and spend quality time as a family.
- Do you think there is a finish line for your philanthropic and advocacy work? What is one goal you hope to achieve in your lifetime?
In my mind, there is no finish, as my fight will always be for the basic rights of children. Education is a right, as is the right to have access to clean water and adequate health care. I’m immensely proud to say that at Malaika we’ve built or refurbished 17 wells that now provide clean water to 30,000 people each year. We’re also continually striving to shape the future of our students—not just when they finish school at the age of 18, but so that they are equipped with the skills and ambition to succeed at technical school or university. Our children are the future we hope to see, and without a quality education we are denying them their full potential. I will always be committed to any global burdens on children, and hope to see women achieving greatness both nationally, in Africa, and at the global scale and know that their journey started with Malaika.
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