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How Nelson Mandela’s Legacy to Advance Access to Education Lives On

By Charlotte Kirby July 29, 2022

As we look at the challenges that we are facing in the world today, I firmly believe that education is the key to us coming together to solve them. After all, as Nelson Mandela said, education is the greatest weapon that we have to improve the state of the world

In 1990, four months after being released from prison, Mandela visited Madison Park High School in Boston to address the community, and he expressed his deep concern about school dropouts both in South Africa and the U.S. After advising the students of trying as much as possible to remain in school, he explained his reasoning: “Because education is the most powerful weapon which we can use in order to prepare our youth for their role as leaders of tomorrow.”

When we talk about the Global Goals as the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all people and the world by 2030, we’re also talking about future generations of leaders who will continue this work beyond 2030. Even though it’s been more than 30 years since Mandela gave his famous and memorable speech, his words about the children of today as our future community advisors and representatives are as powerful and accurate now as they were then.

And his legacy doesn’t only live on in his words, but in the work of inspiring African leaders in the nonprofit sector who are continuously fighting for better access to education. One example of the incredible change that education can bring to a community is Malaika, a grassroots nonprofit that educates and empowers girls and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo through a school, a community center, a clean water program, technical classes and and organic farm. 

Founded in 2007 by philanthropist and international model Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, Malaika proves that not just the child in the school, but the parents, the siblings, and the entire community can thrive when education is available. The organisation personifies Mandela’s words, but also acts as inspiration for his legacy to live on in Africa.

In honour of Mandela Day, I had the pleasure to talk with Noëlla about her championing of Mandela’s vision for Africa and the award that she received from the House of Mandela.

Woman standing and smiling with students in front of a classroom building
Founded in 2007 by philanthropist and international model Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, Malaika proves that not just the child in the school, but the parents, the siblings, and the entire community can thrive when education is available.

Charlotte Kirby: Why and how did you start Malaika?

Noëlla Coursaris Musunka: Malaika emerged out of my own personal story. I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and at the age of five my father passed away suddenly. My mother could not afford to keep me and so she made the difficult decision to send me to live with relatives in Europe. I had a tough childhood there, but I was able to go to school and worked hard for the education my mother had given me the opportunity to get. 

When I was 18, I went back to DRC and was reunited with my mother. Whilst there, I was shocked by her living conditions and those of others in the community. I noticed many children not in school and the large proportion of them were girls. It was during that visit that I realised I needed to give back out of what I had gained, and the dream for Malaika was born. 

I went back to Europe and once my modeling career was established, I started exploring setting up a foundation in my home country. We started by supporting girls at an orphanage with their education, and then in 2007 we launched Malaika with one classroom in the rural village of Kalebuka. Over the past 15 years, Malaika has become a sustainable ecosystem that can be duplicated in any context worldwide.

It consists of a school for 430 girls where we provide a holistic primary and secondary curriculum covering everything from coding to music to art, as well as annual health checks, and a community centre that provides sport for development, vocational training and technical classes to over 5,000 youth and adults a year. We built and refurbished 25 wells that serve over 35,000 people each year with clean water, and we have an agriculture project that provides sustainable farming education as well as food for the school. 

CK: Why is the cause of equal access to education — and especially education for girls — so important for you?

NCM: Because education is a human right. It is not just about acquiring knowledge, it impacts the whole person when they are deprived of the chance to be educated. Over 50 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa are out of school, and when you understand that without an education, girls are more likely to be stunted in their growth, are more likely to be exploited or married young, experience maternal mortality, you can see that it’s a huge problem and inequality. 

Providing education to girls also benefits society as a whole, as they are more likely to earn a greater income and contribute to the growth and development of their communities and nations. I’m so proud of my African heritage. Youth now make up the majority of the population in Africa, and I want to encourage and empower them to be the drivers of change, and to take ownership of the incredible potential that lies within them, their continent, and the world. 

CK: Where does your passion for philanthropy come from?

NCM: Seeing the difference it made to my life that my mother was willing to make a sacrifice and send me away so I could have better opportunities. If we can all make a sacrifice and give back out of any privilege we have, those who are disadvantaged can be empowered and then do their bit to give back to others as well. 

It also comes from a love for the people and communities in my home country. They have so much potential and are strong, wise, and resilient. With a little help, they are capable of changing so much. I have been inspired by many changemakers over the years, too. People like Mandela have opened my eyes to what it really means to make a difference in the lives of others and how it can cost you — but it is just the right thing to do. 

CK: Growing up, what did Nelson Mandela mean to you?

NCM: He was an example of a strong African leader who loved people and was willing to go above and beyond to bring positive change. He was a voice for education and equality and helped me see the importance of what I’d gained growing up in Europe. 

CK: Can you tell us a bit more about the House of Mandela award that you’ve received?

NCM: I received an award acknowledging the philanthropic work I had done through Malaika at the House of Mandela’s Nelson Mandela Centenary celebration. The award recognized my efforts in education equality with Malaika and also my personal journey. It was extremely meaningful for me to not only receive this award, but to spend a week with Mandela’s family, to be in his home and to feel his spirit. It was a very impactful experience. 

CK: When you received the award, what did it mean for you, your work, and the community of Kalebuka?

NCM: It was an incredible honour. Overwhelming really to be given such an award which honoured the legacy of an incredible person who will always be remembered for what he achieved and stood for in Africa and beyond. Such an award helped to raise awareness of the work we are doing and generate more support. 

It also was amazing for the team, as it’s their hard work and dedication that has made Malaika what it is today. It was an award I accepted on behalf of us all. It was also a real joy for the community in Kalebuka to be part of something special like that. Many of them volunteer and contribute to Malaika in different ways so it was a moment of pride for them too.

Support Malaika in its mission to create change through education and learn more about how technology can drive equity in education.