Championing Girls’ Education and Health with Malaika and the Global Fund

Special Focus : Innovating for Quality Education in Africa
Access and Inclusion May 07, 2018

Working with girls is deeply personal to me. Alongside a dedicated team, we founded Malaika in 2007 as a grassroots nonprofit whose mission is to empower girls and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through education and health programs. Malaika believes in the enormous potential of the Congolese people to bring about positive lasting change on their own terms. We provide them with the tools and opportunities so they can move forward and live their lives with dignity and purpose.
Playing a role in helping change the reality of 263 million youth out of school worldwide, 7 million of them in the DRC, is a homecoming for me. I was born in Congo and when I was 5 years old, my father passed away. My mother was not educated and this left her without the resources to take care of a young child, so she sent me to Europe to live with my father’s relatives in the hope that I would have more opportunities there. It would be 13 years before I returned to Congo.
Meeting my mum and extended family again at age 18, and seeing them living in extreme poverty, was a visceral experience. It was hard to process the sacrifice my mother made by sending me away, but I understood she had believed in the power of education to shape my life. After the trip, I knew I needed to play my part, to find a way to tackle the education crisis in my home country and empower the most vulnerable members of the population: young women and girls.
My international modeling career afforded me the opportunity to fulfill that mission with the creation of Malaika, which means angel in Swahili. This is a grassroots operation focused on opening doors, creating opportunities through education and improving health outcomes.
Malaika operates in the village of Kalebuka, in the Southeastern region of the DRC. The majority of households practice subsistence farming and brick-making, and most people live on less than $1.25 a day. Before Malaika, the underserved area had no access to electricity, clean water, or educational facilities. The literacy rate is amongst the lowest in the country, approximately 8% for adults.
The Malaika School is a free, accredited primary and secondary school that provides a comprehensive and high quality education to 280 girls. Our goal is to build the leadership capacity of each student so that she is empowered to give back to her community and has a positive, long-term impact on the future of the DRC. The curriculum is structured around daily classes in French and English, on subjects including math, science, IT, health and civics. Art, music, theater and sports are also a key part of the robust educational programming. The girls receive a nutritious breakfast and lunch each day, ensuring that they are healthy and able to focus on their classes. The school is a refuge for the girls, where they can see their dreams come true. Rose is one of our grade six students and she would like to become a journalist. She shared these thoughts on her school: “Malaika has changed the way I dream – I used to have small ideas of what my life could be like, but now I want to travel the world and experience everything”.
On the 2017 national Grade 6 exams, our students had a 100% pass rate, proving that the school’s curriculum is indeed high quality. Overseeing our STEM program is Jonathan Mboyo Esole, Professor of Mathematics at Northeastern University who was recently named a Next Einstein Fellow, an award that celebrates the best young African scientists. Born in the DRC and educated at Harvard University, Jonathan shows our girls the very real opportunities that are afforded by education.
Beyond the school, Malaika partnered with FIFA to build a community center that offers literacy, health, entrepreneurship and sports programs to more than 7,000 youth and adults in the village. We are working with partners to build healthier communities in the region by distributing 9,000 mosquito nets and providing residents with access to clean water through our 9 freshwater wells, which have directly reduced water-related illnesses. The goal is to take a holistic view to development, taking into account local voices and needs.
We view Malaika as a hub for education – we are trying new things on a small scale, in a system that we can control, and our ideas can then be replicated for maximum impact across the DRC and Africa, taking the proven Malaika model worldwide.
When the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria asked me to be a champion for their work with girls and young women, it was a natural fit. It provides an opportunity to honor the memory of 6-year-old Miriam, a grade one student whom our school lost in December 2015 due to complications from malaria, while the school was closed for the holidays. About 200 children in the DRC die of malaria every day. However, malaria is just one of the diseases that are killing our children – HIV also continues to take a devastating toll on the youth of the continent. In the hardest hit countries, girls account for more than 80% of all new infections among adolescents – and are up to eight times more likely to be living with HIV than their male peers.
Ultimately, these are much more than biomedical problems and a purely medical response will not be enough to solve them. Education not only helps girls fight diseases, but is an essential component of their overall well-being. When we educate girls, we create a transformative effect – a cycle that creates more prosperous societies. That comprehensive approach to supporting young women and girls is why I am proud to share Malaika’s decade of development and impact.
Noëlla is an international model, the Founder and CEO of Malaika, and a Champion for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.