Today, it is very rare to meet a person with such a strong passion for advocacy. Someone who has seen the injustices of the world and has devoted themselves to the betterment of their community; and the human race in general. In this world of political frenzies and growing cynicism, these people are few and far in between. Today, we meet Noella Coursaris, who spends half her time as a supermodel and the other half - managing the non-profit organisation Malaika. An organisation based in the Democratic Republic of Congo that aims to empower Congolese girls through community outreach, good quality education, and life-saving health programs.
We sit down with Noella Coursaris and Malaika’s new goodwill Ambassador, Grammy Award Winning Recording Artist, Eve, to discuss the gender inequality in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the long lasting positive impact of education, and how Malaika is fuelling a generation of change-agents.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background and the personal motivations that pushed you to create Malaika
N: I was born in Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. When I was 5 years old, my father passed away and my mother lacked the resources to take care of me, so she sent me to live with relatives in Switzerland. After completing a degree in business management, I moved to London and began a career in modelling. I was lucky enough to be featured in a variety of campaigns and publications including: Agent Provocateur, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Marie Claire, Essence, and ELLE.
However, throughout this time, I had always been passionate about empowering women and bringing positive attention to my birth country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was determined to do something that would have a long-lasting and positive impact. So in 2007, I founded Malaika alongside a dedicated team. Our international team is a group of pro-bono experts, who volunteer their skills and expertise. This reduces our administrative expenses since only our Congolese staff on the ground are paid, ensuring that 91% of funds raised go directly to our projects.
What attracted you both to advocacy? With distinguished careers in fashion and music, what inspired you to give back to the Congolese community
N: When I returned to the DRC for the first time as an adult, I realised how lucky I was to have received a good education. It was shocking to me that 7 million children were out of school, and that there was a 46% literacy rate for women. There is very little value placed on educating girls in the DRC.
E: I think at some point in most people's lives, they feel a need to give back and help others in some sort of way. I had wanted to be involved with an organisation that was helping to improve young people's lives for a long time, and then I came across Malaika.
Could you tell us about the personal motivations that pushed you to create Malaika?
N: I believe that education is the catalyst for change; and an educated populace leads to a robust society. So the best way to empower girls and women, is to make sure they are receiving good quality education. There needs to be a cultural shift that recognises the value of educating girls; and through Malaika we try to do our part to create the next generation of leaders.
For our readers who are only now being introduced to Malaika, could you tell us what is the philosophy that drives the organisation; and the concrete ways that Malaika is helping the Congolese community?
N: The DRC has suffered through decades of conflict that have left six million dead and another two million displaced. Malaika’s mission is to empower Congolese girls and their communities through education and health programs, all offered free of charge to the community. We view our role as providing the Congolese people with the tools and opportunities that they can then use to bring about positive results for themselves.
Our work takes three main paths: The first, the Malaika School provides quality education to 252 girls. Secondly, our community centre provides education, health, and sports programs to 7,000 youth and adults. Lastly, our 7 wells provide clean water to more than 14,000 people. We also have many ancillary programs, like our Drop Malaria Initiative which distributed 9,000 bed nets to reduce the transmission of Malaria
Why do you think education is the first step in empowering Congolese youth?
N: The education crisis in the DRC disproportionately affects women and girls. If families can afford to send a few of their children to school, they choose the boys and the girls are left to do domestic work. In the village of Kalebuka, where we work, the literacy rate for girls is just 8%. A premium needs to be placed on education, as it is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. Educating girls, in particular, has an exponential impact. An educated woman is less likely to die in childbirth and have healthier children. she is less vulnerable to diseases like HIV/AIDS. She will have the opportunity to increase her future earnings by approximately 10-20% for each additional year of schooling, and will reinvest most of it back into her family and community. Educating girls has positive benefits in all sectors of society.
Of all the villages in Congo, what attracted you to Kalebuka? Why did you decide to open the first Malaika school in this area?
N:I was born in Lubumbashi, which is about a 40 minute drive from Kalebuka. When we were scouting possible locations for the Malaika School, we looked at different villages in the area around Lubumbashi and Kalebuka was the one that was most committed to the project. The local community pursued us and really showed us that they wanted this school to be a part of their lives. Kalebuka has only five educational centres for a population of 42,000, and none of these are free. The literacy rates are abysmal. The need for a good school, along with the community’s strong support of our mission, are what led us to choose Kalebuka as our base.
It is clear that female empowerment is at the core of Malaika. With perceptions of Congo as “one of the most difficult places in the world to be a woman”, what long-term solutions does Malaika present in order to change these perceptions?
N: Our goal is to build the leadership capacity of each student so that she is empowered to give back to her community and have a positive, long-term impact on the future of the DRC. Great care is taken to cultivate the potential of the students; from involvement in the Girl Scouts, field trips, and community service projects, such as planting trees or teaching the community about malaria prevention. Armed with a quality education and diverse experiences, the girls have a confidence and strength that enables them to overcome any obstacles they may have to face in life.
Malaika has partnered with Eve as your newest Goodwill Ambassador, could you tell us how this relationship began?
N: It began through social media. Eve was very interested with our work at Malaika, so we continued to talk through there. It’s been wonderful working with her. She’s extremely motivated and enthusiastic about Malaika. Eve came to Kalebuka in March to inaugurate our new library; and we have seen firsthand how committed she is to our work and to the mission of empowering girls. We couldn’t ask for a better Ambassador!
What does it mean to be a role model for young Congolese girls? With a thriving music career and your current tour with Gwen Stefani, how do you balance your advocacy with the busy lifestyle of a Grammy-Award Winning Artist?
E: I am happy that people think of me as a role model but it's not something I think about. I am lucky to be in the position I am in now with my career, to be able to make time to do the more important things in life. I am extremely lucky to have amazing support from my husband and family, that helps me stay grounded.
You’ve once said that Malaika is “fuelling a generation of change-agents” could you elaborate on this?
N: By educating these young girls, they in turn teach their siblings and friends about what they have learned, who will go on to teach their own networks, until it keeps spreading. They give back to their own communities. We’re seeing a greater importance placed upon education from the community at large. The girls themselves are helping to break gender inequality by becoming leaders in their communities and showing exactly how capable they are.
After ten years of transforming the Congolese community through holistic education, life-saving medical equipment, and clean water, what is next for Malaika? Do you have any more upcoming projects in 2017?
N: We would like to steadily increase our programs — enrol more students at the school and the community centre and keep building wells. We want to make sure these programs are sustainable and embraced by the community.
Interview by Hannah Tan
Photographer Jem Mitchell
Fashion Director Tilly Hardy
Make Up Zoe Taylor
Hair Stephen Beaver