School is back up and running, bringing with it new opportunities, new outfits and accessories, and the chance to set new goals. For model and activist Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, this is the time of year to encourage her children to excel in their studies, while also focusing on giving and expressing themselves.
Coursaris Musunka has made serving others an integral part of her daily life since its founding. Project Malaika, an organization that provides schooling opportunities for Congolese girls, in 2007. And she has set an example for her children, James, 12, and Cara, 8, to do the same. Recently, she sat down with us to discuss her biggest passions — education, family and of course, fashion — while marking the start of the school year with the kids. her, model Versace ChildrenNew eyeglasses and sunglasses by Casa Museo Lodovico Pogliaghi and Santa Maria del Monte in Varese, Italy. If the first children’s collection from Versace Eyewear is any indication, the semester is off to a hectic start. Here’s our conversation with Coursaris Musunka.
ELLE: If you had to choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?
NOËLLA COURSARIS MUSUNKA: I am a builder. I was able to build who I am, both personally and professionally, through commitment and perseverance. I am a very energetic and determined person; I am excited and intrigued by change. I built both my modeling career and my organization from the very beginning. With the latter, I am working to build future generations of leaders in my country.
How did you make your dream of Project Malaika come true?
NCM: I founded Malaika in 2007 in Kalebuka, the village I come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is a non-profit organization that provides girls with opportunities for advanced education and healthcare. Malaika means “angel” in Swahili, and our mission is to give these girls wings so they can spread them wide and fly, leaving the situation at a disadvantage. We give them the inspiration and skills to face any challenge and competition in the workforce. And we teach them values that include commitment, empowerment, and out-of-the-box thinking. Students also gain proficiency in everything from food education to computer science.
How has your experience in the fashion industry influenced your activism?
NCM: My modeling career plays a complementary role to what I do with Malaika. It gives me the opportunity to collaborate with fashion brands to convey and amplify positive messages that really resonate. And all the advertising campaigns that I participate in are aligned with my values and beliefs.
What challenges have you faced with Malaika, and what are your greatest achievements?
NCM: Despite the support of the Kalebuka community, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done. It’s been an ongoing challenge and fundraising struggles have escalated with COVID. But it is rewarding to watch these girls grow and develop their dreams and ambitions. Some of them don’t have beds or electricity at home, and it’s touching to see the happiness and gratitude in their eyes. I realize I’m making a concrete impact every time I do something like visit one of the 28 wells we’ve built to aid in the country’s water scarcity crisis. We are celebrating our 15th anniversary this year and next summer our first class of girls will graduate. I am very happy and proud.
Based on your direct experience, how would you describe the power of education?
NCM: Education defines who I am today — it’s what pushed me to cross borders, achieve my goals, and take control of my life. That is my mission with Malaika: to empower the young generation through education. I lost my father when I was 5 years old, and because my mother did not have enough money to support me with her, I left the Congo to live with some of my relatives. I’m 18 again, and I’m committed to helping promote the social revitalization of my country.
Do you think education can really change the world?
NCM: Sure! This was especially evident in Kalebuka, where we were able to change many lives. Our students range in age from 5 to 18, but Malika’s impact goes far beyond girls. It is open to their families, who can participate in community center activities and learn to read, write, use computers, and sew.
Are there any basic principles that you try to instill in your children?
NCM: Above all, be kind. We live in a world where kindness cannot be taken for granted, and it is often underestimated. I teach my children to care about others and help as much as possible. Cara and James make me so proud of that. They formed small organizations with their friends to support those in need, providing them with food and clothing. I always involve my children in what I do so they can appreciate it and be inspired. I have also brought them to the Congo many times since they were born, because it is important to me that they know and understand their origins. I want them to feel at home not only in London, but also in Kalebuka.
Now a question for the kids: James and Cara, are you happy to be back at school?
CARA: We can’t wait to meet our friends! [Editors’ note: they confessed that they really didn’t miss the early morning alarm.]
What lesson did you both learn from your mother?
JAMES: Never give up. And always look on the bright side of things.
CARA: Follow your passion and always look people straight in the eye when they talk to you.
You both modeled costumes and eyeglasses from Versace Children for our shoot. Which look do you like?
CARA: Turtleneck sweater and fuchsia sunglasses. I want to be a businesswoman when I grow up, and those clothes make me feel that way.
JAMES: Jacket and sweatshirt combo, along with black sunglasses. I really liked the street style of that outfit and I was completely comfortable wearing it.
Noëlla, which stands out to you the most?
NCM: How can I choose just one? I love every outfit Cara and James wore today. Clothes are vivid and rich, best expressing the personality of the children without forgetting to create comfort. I definitely love the glasses the most and the fact that they revisited Versace classics for both sunglasses and frames. The iconic “mini” version of the ’90s is playful, smart, and casual.
Is there anything you love most about Versace’s style?
NCM: I’ve always been a fan of the brand’s bold style and its values, like the importance of family, inclusivity and freedom of expression. For me, Versace’s Medusa [logo] represents a symbol of strength, confidence and courage.
When you think about your child’s future, what do you hope for?
NCM: I want to see them happy and successful, whatever path they choose. I want them to be honest, loyal and generous people. In a way, Malaika is my third “child”, and I want her to continue to grow and help people. The platform has become an ecosystem in all possible senses, with the goal of extending to different branches of society and territories. We sow seeds every day, and I look forward to reaping ripe fruits in the future.
This interview has been translated and edited for clarity.