IBtimes UK spoke with Noella Coursaris Musunka, a Congolese model who is trying to make a difference for women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Noella was born in DRC, but when she was five her father died and her mother, lacking the means to raise her, sent her to live in Europe.
Musunka studied in Belgium, Switzerland and London and, at the age of 18, she decided she wanted to meet her mother again. "I wanted to know who my mother was. At the time there was no emails, not a lot of communication, so I had spoken with my mother three, four times in 13 years," she told IBTimes UK.
"It was a beautiful, but very difficult moment. I have a lot of respect for my mother for giving me away, it must have been really hard for her."
Musunka said that when she went back to DRC for the first time, she felt at home, but she also saw the extent of the poverty and decided she had to do something to empower her people. So in 2007, Musunka founded Malaika in New York, where she had also started her modelling career.
"My dream has always been to work for a humanitarian organisation and, after visiting DRC, I promised myself that one day I would try to do something to give back to my country and empower my people," she said.
Malaika operates in Kalebuka – in south-east DRC – and provides education to 231 girls. The foundation also provides clean drinking water to more than 10,000 people and has partnered with Fifa to build the Kalebuka Football for Hope Centre.
"The first project was to build and manage a school," she said. "For me it was important to build a school where I can see myself sending my own children. Not a basic school, but a place where children want to go to learn and become the next leaders.
"Kalebuka is an extremely poor village where the roads are terrible, there is lack of electricity and wells," Musunka continued. "When we started building the school, we also built a well, so many people from the village started coming to fetch water. So we decided to build more wells and now we have five.
"The Kalebuka Football for Hope Centre is based on health, education and sport and we teach youths and elders to read, write, learn mathematics and use sport as a social tool. We also teach them about illnesses such as malaria and HIV."
Malaika is planning to build a secondary school and find scholarships to send girls to university.
Violence against women
DRC is often labelled as "the rape capital of the world" and "the worst place to be a woman", with one of the highest rates of violence against women and girls globally. However, Musunka believes it is time people portrayed her country in a more positive way to highlight what Congolese people have to offer.
"We know we have problems with rape, with violence against women, but as a Congolese, I cannot portray my country in a negative way," she said. "Congo has a lot to offer and we must be in control of our own country, own destiny, our own minerals.
"We speak a lot about Congo's minerals, but its first wealth is the people and this is why we have to empower them."
CORRECTION: This report incorrectly states that Malaika Foundation was created in 1997. Malaika was established in 2007.
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