Kumwenda: from African village to Vixens’ excitement machine
Mwai Kumwenda has brought something more than just a ferocious competitiveness and relentless consistency to the new-look Melbourne Vixens goal circle; in just 11 rounds the Malawian import has become one of Super Netball’s great crowd-pleasers, too. A look-away pass here. A lay-up there. Unpredictability everywhere.
“Sometimes I just need to do something funny because you can’t just be every time serious,” smiles the quietly-spoken Kumwenda, known for keeping both opponents and teammates guessing about what might be coming next, and sometimes surprising even herself. “I don’t know,” she admits, laughing, “sometimes just happens!”
Few in the happy Vixens’ lair are complaining, for Kumwenda’s partnership with the reborn Tegan Philip has been one of the highlights of an outstanding season. So far, that is. Simone McKinnis’ young team heads the ladder after 11 rounds, but there are still three to play, starting with Sunday’s table-topping encounter with the second-placed Giants in Canberra.
Kumwenda – or “MJ”, as she is known – starred with 35 goals from 38 attempts in a 59-51 win when the teams met at Hisense Arena in round six, which is almost exactly her average, both in number and accuracy. But if her first goal in this game will be her 400th for the season, it is not just how many, but how she has gone about it that has made such an impression.
“MJ’s just so competitive. I love that,” said McKinnis, who made it her mission to lure the 183-centimetre spearhead from the Christchurch-based Tactix after parting ways with Karyn Bailey during the off-season. “And you wouldn’t know it, but she gets so nervous before a game and I’m just ‘oh, MJ … you’re just brilliant’. She loves the team, we all love her and it’s just been really special having her in the group.”
The feeling is mutual. While still nervous about Melbourne’s traffic and trams, and shy about being recognised by young fans in the supermarket, the youngest of eight children born to a maize, beans, and tomato-growing single mother in the village of Mzimba has settled in nicely. She lives with a host family in Brunswick and relishes the supportive friendship of team leaders Kate Moloney and Liz Watson in particular.
“There’s two girls I always like, yeah. Lizzie and Kate,” she beams. “I’m enjoying it here, yeah. Good people – my teammates. Good coaching, and I’m enjoying (this) because my netball career has now changed. How I’m coached by Simone and Di [Honey, assistant coach], I’ve improved so much.”
There was always plenty of raw material to work with, it must be said, given the natural athletic talent of a late-starter who began playing barefoot on a dirt court, and not competitively until the age of 17, but in 2015 was named player-of-the-tournament at the Netball World Cup. The high-leaping Kumwenda has the option to either back her aerial/holding ability under the post, or roam further away, change things up and open up the space.
Philip, too, is thriving, and jokes that she needs only one strategy: put the ball into the circle and watch Kumwenda jump. “And I love seeing her little tricks she does out on court,” says Philip, currently the competition’s leading goal attack. “There’s the look-away pass, she gives out the ‘side-eye’, we’re calling it, so you’ve always got to be aware of that, but she’s just such a great person to be able to play with and work with.”
She is also a role model in her homeland, where Kumwenda still sends money back to help her family, and imagines that, if not for netball, she might by now have four or five children and a very different life. “In Malawi most of the people know me, so I always encourage them. The kids are ‘I want to be like Mwai’. Always that,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s very hard for me to believe that I’m here, because where I come from is poor country, poor village, it’s [a] very hard life. This profession is just like a dream for me.”