Mwai Kumwenda, Melbourne Vixens star, on her charity work in … – Code

When she’s not starring for the Melbourne Vixens, Mwai Kumwenda is helping people in her native Malawi, writes LINDA PEARCE.
Mwai Kumwenda is fond of a big occasion, and the shooter of the Melbourne Vixens’ winning two-pointer in Sunday’s dramatic Super Netball Victorian derby against the Magpies was last September the co-star of her own.
The guest list for Kumwenda’s September 24 wedding in Blantyre, eight hours south of her home village of Mzimba, extended to the Malawian president and sports minister. Royalty and religious leaders were among the VIPs, and three of her Melbourne Vixens’ teammates included in the bridal party.
Yet if President Lazarus Chakwera was an apology as he prepared to fly to Washington to sign a $522 million infrastructure assistance deal, and sent the Minister of Water and Sanitation in his place, then he appears to have been one of few local no-shows for the nuptials of Kumwenda and her chartered accountant partner Wanangwa Mbwana.
A few hundred were invited.
More than 600 turned up.
“In Malawi it’s hard because everybody’s proud of you so they just come,” Kumwenda says of an occasion streamed live on her Facebook page, and widely reported in the local media.
“Here it’s different. You just invite this one and this one, whereas in Malawi people are like, ‘We are part of Mwai, she is making us proud’, so they just come.’’
Among the 34 Australian guests were close friends Emily Mannix and Tegan Philip and bridesmaids Hannah Mundy, Kate Eddy and Ruby Barkmeyer, while co-captains Lizzy Watson and Kate Moloney, original members of the official party, were unavailable due to Diamonds’ commitments.
Which was disappointing for all but, as Malawi’s best player and the competition’s leading scorer at three of her seven Commonwealth Games/World Cups, Kumwenda says she well understands the importance of national duty. Noting, too, the significance of Cape Town this year hosting Africa’s first World Cup.
Yet Watson and Moloney remain among her many non-blood sisters, with the Vixens collectively having set up a roster to take their shy recruit to training and games, and help teach her to drive and even swim after she arrived from Kiwi team Canterbury Tactix for the 2017 season.
And if the low point during Kumwenda’s 122 ANZ Championships and Super Netball matches was a distressing ACL rupture in 2018, the highlight was clearly the 2020 Vixens premiership in which she was named grand final MVP.
Less well known is the fact that, amid the locker room euphoria, Kumwenda’s sip of sparkling wine from a plastic cup that afternoon in the Brisbane hub was her first ever alcoholic drink.
The wedding day did not include her second, though, for that had already come, at mischievous Mundy’s instigation, during her hen’s night.
Which, as a result, was an early night.
Over by 10pm for the weary bride-to-be.
It’s hard to underestimate Kumwenda’s fame in her homeland. Or to be unmoved by the extraordinary and unlikely nature of her story.
The youngest of eight children raised by a widowed mother in a remote village hut, Kumwenda’s netball experience was barefoot on a dirt court until the age of 11, throwing pieces of melted plastic tied with string, using trees as goalposts and old car tyres as rings.
“The fact that I think she’s got the prime minister’s phone number, and they’re in touch quite often, you kinda just go, ‘This is pretty amazing and ridiculous how loved she is in the country’,’’ says former teammate Caitlin Thwaites, now the Vixens’ shooting coach.
“But also the amount of impact she is having not only on the world stage, given where she’s come from, but how much she actually does for that community and gives back to them, which is really amazing, as well.’’
For years, Kumwenda has taken multiple suitcases full of her teammates’ used runners, leftover Vixens clothing, netballs and other equipment on her annual trip home. Cast-offs from those who have so much are treasured by many with so little.
Her current project is on a far larger scale; repeating an initiative from her time in Christchurch with the Tactix, as she attempts to fill and send a container load to the needy, over 10,000km away.
Indeed, what has been in the works for a while has become even more vital due to the devastation wrought this month by Tropical Cyclone Freddy. Over 500 people are dead and more than 5,000 have been misplaced in Malawi alone, and a state of emergency declared amid widespread destruction across southern Africa.
“When I was in New Zealand eight years ago I saw people just throwing things away and I was like, ‘Oh my God. Here, people, they are lucky, they have got everything and they are just throwing things away’,’’ Kumwenda recalls.
“So I was talking to my New Zealand mum, ‘How can we do this, so that people if they throw things away I can take it to Malawi? Because in my village and other villages, they are very poor, they don’t have things like this’. So my New Zealand mum and the Tactix helped me and I did that a long time ago.’’
And is now trying again, with bedding, books, backpacks, first-aid supplies and other items to be added to the netball paraphernalia and precious Gilbert balls if $35,000 can be raised via a GoFundMe page to help pay for the shipping and transport costs.
“Sometimes it’s hard to ask, you know,’’ Kumwenda says. “Sometimes you have this idea, like people are here throwing things out, but you are like, ‘Oh, I don’t have money. How can I send this container to Malawi?’
“But this family just come up last year and they’re like, ‘MJ, we’re gonna do this. We can do this. We need to do fundraising like this’ … and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been thinking about that for a long time, but I was just afraid to ask’.’’
Thwaites, who is packing up to move house but a generous spirit at any time, has already dropped off a big bag of balls, and suspects she will end up donating enough outfits from a wardrobe full of Swifts/Magpies/Vixens/Diamonds and other colours to kit out about four teams.
Which means there will be a lot of mini ‘Thwaites’ running around beside the Watsons, Moloneys and Westons et al, with match dresses snapped up by grateful school and club teams.
Training tops are also highly prized. So special, in fact, says Kumwenda, that they are often worn to church.
No wonder there was such interest in the wedding of the 33 year-old role model and example/inspiration for young girls and athletes to Wanangwa, her beau of eight years now seeking a visa to visit Australia and whom she confesses she misses “a lot”.
Then, just over two months after what Kumwenda described as “the best day in my life”, she farewelled her new husband to return to Melbourne to start her seventh pre-season with her other family, the Vixens.
“It took me a little bit but I was just like, ‘I just need to get back to training now’,’’ she says, keen to avenge last year’s emphatic grand final loss to the Fever in Perth.
She continues to evolve, according to Thwaites, who teamed with the dynamic, high-leaping, often instinctive sometimes unpredictable Kumwenda for much of her full comeback season in 2020, and was thus relocated to the less familiar position of goal attack.
“The best thing for me was just to be able to let her shine a bit,’’ says Thwaites. “She dominates in that circle and for the majority of my career I was a holding shooter so I had to go, ‘Well, who’s the better of the holding shooters? OK, well I’ll do the other bit then, MJ, for you!’
“And I was quite comfortable and confident to turn and just throw the ball up to her, because she’s an impressive athlete.’’
One who has added more movement and variety to her game, while retaining the trademark competitiveness that extends to the training court, too.
“People can see that she’s up and about, she’s yelling from the transverse lines, she’s all of those things, which is really great that we’ve got awesome characters like that out there on court,‘’ says Thwaites.
“Across her time in the league it’s been awesome to see that she’s added different dimensions and elements to her game, too.’’
All players are out of contract at the end of 2023, but Kumwenda insists she is unsure whether she wants to continue playing after what will be her 10th season at the top level and fourth World Cup for the flamboyant sixth-ranked Malawi Queens.
“I haven’t decided yet!’’ she says, good-naturedly but determinedly fending off any further probing. “When I decide I will let you know.’’
Kumwenda is capable, if not the most natural, from two-point range and so spent a lot of time during this most recent pre-season practising the Super Shot.
“It was like a mental block, thinking like, ‘I can’t shoot two points’,’’ she admits. “Where this year, I think, ‘I’ll just go for it. I’ll just shoot the way I used to shoot in 2020. Not just under the post. And if I miss I will go in for rebound’.
“So the girls just trust me. Like, ‘MJ, shoot. Just keep shooting’.’’
In the 62-61 loss to the Fever in the grand final rematch she missed her only two attempts. In round two on Sunday, with the Vixens trailing by seven and needing to take risks to catch-up, Pies circle duo Geva Mentor and Jodi-Ann Ward were, predictably, starting to double-team her partner Kiera Austin, who is typically more comfortable from longer range.
Knowing she needed to act, Kumwenda hit three twos in less than three minutes, then stood in the arc preparing to take the last penalty shot of the game after the final buzzer. Collingwood ahead 61-60.
“I didn’t think a lot. I was just relaxing,’’ she smiles, even if the statistics reveal Kumwenda had converted just eight Super Shots for the whole of last SSN season at a lowly 22 per cent accuracy, compared with 24 and 40 at over 50 per cent respectively in 2020-21.
“I was like, ‘Kiera, do you want to take it?’ And she was like, ‘What? No, MJ, just take it, just believe (in) yourself’. I was like ‘This is my job. I need to finish this’.’’
Triple defended, from Mentor inside the circle, and Ash Brazill and Molly Jovic outside, Kumwenda rocked back on one foot.
Swish. Four from four, in less than five minutes. Four precious points.
“It’s interesting,’’ says Thwaites. “We’ve always kind of known that, yes, she can shoot (from distance) — probably mid-range is more of her comfort — but the fact she managed to do that is a huge confidence booster for MJ.
“We’ve just been talking about, ‘If you’re feeling it, then yep, go for it’. We try not to be too restrictive around ‘this is your role, or that’s your role’ with the two shooters, because obviously it’s more potent if you’ve got the two that are able to do it.
“And I said to MJ this week at training, ‘How much growth does that show?’ That as opposed to shying away she’s recognising that, ‘Hey, this is a moment we need to chase down a lead’, and they were double defending Kippa … so she just went, ‘OK, well, I’m steppin’ up! That’s me and I’m gonna do it’.’’
Afterwards, amid the relief and pandemonium, was a little shimmy of joy.
Or “the dance”, as Kumwenda calls the celebratory Malawian shuffle that has now made its Super Netball debut via the netball queen of a country where dancing — and not just at weddings for 600-plus — is almost another of the national sports.
A finalist in the 2021 Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year Award, Linda Pearce is a Melbourne-based sportswriter with more than three decades experience across newspapers, magazines and digital media, including 23 years at The Age. One of the first women in Australia to cover VFL/AFL and cricket, she has won media awards across a range of sports – including internationally, as the recipient of the ATP’s 2015 Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award. A tennis specialist who has reported from over 50 major tournaments, including 13 Wimbledons, Linda has also covered two Olympic and two Commonwealth Games, plus multiple world championships in gymnastics and aquatics and five Netball World Cups.
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