For Noëlla Coursaris Musunka, the power of a ball is something magical. As the founder of Malaika, a grassroots non-profit that works to educate and empower girls and communities in her home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Noëlla spends a lot of time in the African country and had just visited the week before she gave an interview to World Football Summit, ahead of her upcoming appearance as a speaker at WFS Africa on March 17th and 18th.
“I always have balls with me in the car,” the philanthropist and model explained. “It’s sad, but it’s amazing the power of a ball. Because when I go to these villages, I distribute some balls. We receive a lot of balls from Manchester City and I distributed a lot of them last week. It was just the joy they’re receiving and the pride. You occupy them and take them out of the problems and out of the challenges they have every day. They just have a big smile, receiving a ball.”
“When my father died, my mother didn’t have enough education to earn money, so she couldn’t take care of me”
Football is often described as being powerful and, in the case of Noëlla and Malaika, it’s really true that the sport can change lives for the better. Malaika is having a significant impact in the village of Kalebuka through various means and one of these is football. Through collaboration with FIFA, the Kalebuka Football for Hope Center was built and opened in 2013 and it is improving the lives of thousands of people in the region. As Noëlla stated in her interview with WFS: “Sport brings unity, it brings peace and it brings everyone together. It gives a voice to every person. It gives a voice to children. It gives a voice to women, to girls, to staff, to the community.”
Noëlla knows the importance of a strong voice, having used hers to speak at various prestigious international events about her philanthropic work. For example, she has spoken at the Davos World Economic Forum, at the UK Parliament, at Clinton Global Initiative panels and she has given a TED Talk. Her story is an inspiring one, as she left the Democratic Republic of the Congo to study in Belgium and later Switzerland after her father died when she was just five years old. “When my father died, my mother didn’t have enough education to earn money, so she couldn’t take care of me,” Noëlla explained. “She gave me away because she wanted to give me a chance. The problem in Africa is that women’s education is not a priority.”
Aware of this fact, Noëlla set up Malaika in 2007. Empowering girls and women is the fundamental goal of Malaika, a word which means Angel in the local language of Swahili. According to Unicef, 52.7% of girls aged 5 to 17 do not attend school in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of the reason for this is that a lot of schooling in the country is paid-for, but Malaika is making an impact by offering free schooling. They’ve been providing this for girls aged 5 to 18 since opening the Malaika school in 2011 and there are currently 346 girls who are receiving a high-quality education.
“We deliver a holistic and free curriculum, ranging from STEM, coding, art, music, theatre and sport”
“When a community has a mindset of girls not needing to get an education, it’s not easily overcome,” Noëlla explained. “Particularly for girls, the cultural view is that the main role is to help at home. Malaika provides free and quality education that gives a girl everything she needs to go on to further education or work. We deliver a holistic and free curriculum, ranging from STEM, coding, art, music, theatre and sport.”
The focus on activities such as sport is truly key and this has even been recognised by the Democratic Republic of Congo government. “We had the minister of education come to see what is the success of the Malaika school,” Noëlla revealed. “With Malaika school, it’s the nutrition programme, it’s that we’re doing health checkups on our students and it’s that we’re offering them a lot of activities. They have a lot of sport, from running to football to tennis.”
While the work done by the school in terms of educating local girls is already so important and praise-worthy, Malaika has gone several steps further with other initiatives, from offering family planning programmes to a clean water programme that has built and refurbished 19 wells. “That’s really something that I’m very proud of,” she said.
The results have already been so impressive and Noëlla will be sharing more details on what has been achieved when she appears at WFS Africa in March, where the conference concepts include youth football, women’s football and the ways in which football can change lives. Already, some of the highlights have been the fact that the girls at the school have passed the national tests for three years in a row and the fact that there is a growing level of equality in this community.
Football, as Noëlla explained, has had a major role in achieving this: “In Africa, even more than ever, it’s very important to promote equality. In the early days of our programmes, the boys would not play with the girls. They were saying ‘we’re not going to play with girls, as they’re weak and they’re going to slow down the games’. But, [it changed] after being educated and really saying ‘hey, you can play with girls, they’ll be strong and we will train them’. It’s not only about competition, but it’s about having fun. Because sport, yes, it’s competition.”
“But, when I look at the Kalebuka Football Centre, it’s a place where it united the entire village.”
Looking to the future, Noëlla would love for more projects such as these to be launched and has called on those in positions of power to do what is necessary to make this happen. “I do believe leaders on the global stage, leaders in the country and leaders in the community should move towards popularising sport,” she said. “Leaders should give grants to community organisations. They should equip them, so that they can have the tools they need to change the world and the community around them.”
That is what has been happening in Kalebuka. The long days put in by Noëlla and all her partners are paying off. With three more classrooms set to open up, there will soon be over 400 students at the school, and, with the Kalebuka Football for Hope Center offering the opportunity to play sport and to enrol in various community classes, there will soon be even greater recognition of the power of a ball.