Mwai, queen of shots: Mwai Kumwenda, 28, netballer
I grew up in a small village in Malawi – Mtwalo in Mzimba district. We have eight in our family but one passed away. I have three brothers and three sisters and I am the youngest.
I started playing netball in the village when I was 11. I used to play on the dust court, no shoes. We didn’t know anything much about it, we didn’t know the positions, so we just played for fun. I used to make a ball by melting plastic bags and moulding them, and we used a tree as goalpost. We’d use car tyres to make the ring.
When I was 14 or 15 one of the coaches for the Malawi Queens spotted me playing in a small tournament in the village and took me to the city to play for a team there. But I was worried because I was used to the village and life was hard in the city. Then when I was playing for Malawi Queens in the World Youth Cup in 2009, the lady from Frankston – Maxine Wauchope – is the one who spotted me and brought me out to play for the Peninsula Waves in 2011. That was hard because I didn’t know much about this life, you know?
I played for Victorian Fury in the Australian Netball League and then I played in the Trans-Tasman Netball League for Mainland Tactix in New Zealand for three years until 2016. I was so excited when [Melbourne Vixens coach] Simone McKinnis called me up, because in the past I had been watching some of the girls play – Tegan [Philip], Liz [Watson], Kate [Moloney], Bianca [Chatfield], Geva [Mentor]. I was like, “One day I need to play with those girls”, so I just did my best and worked hard.
I’m called MJ – it’s Mwai Jasinta – because Mwai is hard and some people can’t pronounce it. I’m always like, “Oh, my team will lose if I miss a couple of goals”, but I’m lucky because I’ve got Liz and Kate there and Tegan and they are always like, “Let’s go, MJ” – they always barrack for me and encourage me. It’s great playing with those girls; they are like superstars.
Last weekend [against West Coast Fever], our team physio knew straight away what I had done [ruptured an ACL] and was able to organise all the appointments [for surgery] as soon as possible. While I’m very sad to miss this week’s game, to have all my Vixens family around me is the best for my recovery and I know I’ll be back stronger. I feel like this is the best team – the girls are so nice, we’re like sisters. I’m having good life here, you know. I don’t miss home because it’s like we’re a family. I feel like I’m home.
Am I one of the most famous athletes in Malawi? Yeah, yeah, people know me and always say hello. It’s a good thing for the young girls growing up in Malawi to see they can have opportunity in this life, not just getting married at 15 years, 16 years. It’s good for me to show the young girls you can work hard at sport and school and you can do anything you want.
There is something natural there but I also train hard because Simone always pushes me and she has shaped me a lot. I love working with Simone as a coach – I am improving each and every time when she is teaching me things. We are always encouraging each other in the Vixens – I love that. I go back to the girls in Malawi and tell them, “We need to work hard if we are going to beat the girls in Australia, because these girls work hard and that is why they deserve to be the best in the world.”
Beating the Silver Ferns [in the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games] was like a dream come true. It was a huge story for the Malawi Queens, a big achievement, because we had never beat them. Most of the time the girls are only thinking about beating the African teams, because Australia and England and New Zealand are top and in their minds they don’t think they can beat them. So when we lost against Uganda, I said to the girls, “You know, we can beat even New Zealand if we work hard.” I always encourage the girls, “We can do this.”
The plan is to do beauty studies here so when I go home I can do that. I am aiming to open my own business back in Malawi when I finish my netball. I send back money to my mum and my family to help them. My mum, she used to live in a small house, so with the money I was getting from netball I tried to build my mum a house. She is very proud of me. It’s so special for me for Mum to have a good life. That’s why I try to work hard.
In Malawi schoolgirls still play on dirt courts with no shoes. Each time I travel home I take some balls to give to a team. My dream is to one day build a proper asphalt court in Malawi.
To the young girls at home I say they just need to believe in themselves and keep working hard and listen to the coaches. Everyone can do it and they need to choose good people around them. They need to believe there is no limit in this life.
This week’s highlights…
• AFL: Sydney Swans v Collingwood
Saturday, 7.25pm (AEST), Sydney Cricket Ground
• Netball: Melbourne Vixens v Sunshine Coast Lightning
Sunday, 1pm (AEST), Hisense Arena, Melbourne
• NRL: Penrith Panthers v Canberra Raiders
Sunday, 4.10pm (AEST), Panthers Stadium, Penrith
• Rugby union: Super Rugby grand final – Crusaders v Lions
Saturday, 5.35pm (AEST), AMI Stadium, Christchurch
• Motorsport: Czech Republic MotoGP
Sunday, 10pm (AEST), Brno Circuit, Czech Republic
• Hockey: Women’s World Cup – bronze and gold medal play-offs
Sunday, 11pm (AEST), and Monday, 1.30am (AEST), QEOP, London
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "Mwai, queen of shots". Subscribe here.