Photographed by Shoji Van Kuzumi
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Noëlla Coursaris Musunka is not your average international supermodel. In 2007, she founded Malaika, a nonprofit organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that gives young girls access to education and health programs. So far Malaika has built a school for 280 girls, a community center used by several thousand youths and adults, and nine wells supplying fresh water to 18,000 people, reducing the risk of disease and water-borne illness — all at no cost to the community. We caught up with her in New York to learn more about her inspiring journey and how jewelry has impacted her life and work.
Coursaris Musunka was born in the Congo, but was sent to live with relatives in Europe at an early age after her father died and her mother could no longer afford to support her. In Europe, she had the chance to pursue education, eventually receiving a degree in business management. When she finally returned to the Congo after a 13-year absence, she was determined to create the same educational opportunities for girls there.
Her modeling career began when a friend entered her into a competition that led to her being chosen for an Agent Provocateur campaign. Through modeling, she was afforded the opportunity to travel the world, appearing in powerhouse magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair and gaining a global platform to share her passion for human rights.
"I think it is wonderful that we are living in a time when issues such as gender parity are on the global agenda," she says. "I am happy that education has been acknowledged as a powerful tool which can bring about a change in the lives of women and girls all over the world."
On the impact of jewelry in the communities she works with: "The bracelet and the earrings were made locally in the DRC and consist of a mineral called malachite. It is found in Lubumbashi, a city in the Katanga province, in the Southeastern region of the DRC. It is a symbolic piece of jewelry from the Congo, as I like to promote Congolese and African fashion and designers whenever I can, as a way of supporting the local artists. Our work with Malaika is about giving the community the tools and opportunities to live their lives with dignity and purpose, and that means highlighting the contributions of the passionate and hardworking people."
On the personal significance of jewelry: "I have two pieces of jewelry that are very important to me - my wedding ring and my engagement ring."
Advice to young girls who aspire to be like her: "Be yourself and enjoy what you do. Have a vision for where you would like to be but also make sure you try to live in the moment. Try to work on things that you truly care about so that you can really put your heart into them. To me, that has always been very important."
To learn more about the work Malaika is doing in the Congo, follow @malaikadrc.
This article is part of Shiffon Co.'s What's In My Jewelry Box series, where we visit women we admire to learn about what their jewelry means to them. Follow along @shiffonco for sneak peeks at our next features.