The Congo, as it is portrayed in author Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" published in 1899, is desolate.
It’s a difficult read, especially for those of us who live on the continent. And while there have been many other works by African writers about Africa in response, it took a model to help me lift the defeated feeling that literature of that nature lets linger.
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka is lithe. Her personality bubbles over her petite frame.
Musunka's non-profit organisation consists of a school providing quality education to 314 girls; a community centre with a range of programmes for 7 000 people; and a clean water programme that provides more than 30 000 people a year with fresh water.
If she carries her past it surely manifests as inner strength.
Musunka was born in the Congo. At the age of 5, when her father died, her mother sent her gave her to relatives in Europe.
She longed for her mother and vowed to one day return home.
When she eventually did, she found numerous siblings. The pang of hurt was quickly followed by the realisation that her mother, living in poverty, didn’t know any better.
“From that moment I was determined to help educate Congolese girls,” Musunka said.
Musunka has featured in numerous beauty campaigns but her inner beauty is most evident in the village of Kalebuka, where is uplifting a community through education.
“However, when you want to build a school in these parts, you have to first build a well. It’s not just about putting up classrooms. There is no infrastructure in the rural areas. There is no water.
“Women and girls are tasked making the trip to fetch water – an exhausting dangerous chore that robs them of a chance to learn or work.”
When we meet, Musunka shows me pictures of the school she set up in the village of Kalebuka in 2011 situated in the south-eastern region of the Congo. To date, 314 girls have received an education.
There are more than 17 wells there now and the community thrives – thanks to the school.
In Belgium, Musunka studied business management, but her unique features garnered her a career in photographic modelling. She has appeared in Vanity Fair and Vogue.
She most recently collaborated with fashion designer, Roksanda, and The Outnet, to launch an exclusive clothing collection with proceeds supporting Malaika.
Musunka, a mother of two, was named one of the BBC’s 100 most Influential and Inspirational Women of 2017 and is an award-recipient from the House of Mandela at the Nelson Mandela centenary celebration; and she is an advocate for female education and empowerment within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Since 2017, she has served as ambassador for The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
Her international profile was what helped her set up the Malaika foundation - which has offices in New York - and Although she continues to model, her focus is on the young girls – any one of which could have been her.