Amid the maize, beans and tomatoes grown on a small family plot in the Malawian village of Mzimba, an unlikely sports story sprouted. There, hard-working mother Costa Kumwenda raised eight children, including Mwai, the Melbourne Vixens’ star netball recruit.
The youngest Kumwenda sibling is a household name in her homeland, despite now living 11,000 kilometres away in the Melbourne hipster suburb of Brunswick. At 27, the dynamically athletic but quietly spoken Mwai is the first – the only – Malawian to play in the world’s premier club competition, Super Netball, and has become a standout performer in its inaugural year.
Yet many adjustments have been needed, and not just on the court, where Mwai has formed a fine partnership with fellow Vixens goaler Tegan Philip. After a stand-up paddleboarding adventure on Port Phillip Bay during the pre-season that left coach Simone McKinnis a white-knuckled spectator on the sandy shore, Mwai is having swimming lessons at the Victorian Institute of Sport. With the help of the instructors at RACV Drive School, she is also learning to negotiate traffic, hook-turns and the city’s terrifying trams.
‘In the village, just for fun’
It was not a life Mwai could have imagined when she started playing netball “in the village, just for fun” a dozen years ago, although not competitively until the age of 17. But just as Mwai is thriving, so is her title-contending team.
“Sometimes it’s very hard for me to believe that I’m here, because where I come from is a poor country, poor village, it’s a very hard life,” Mwai says. “This profession is just like a dream for me.
“When I go home sometimes I talk to the young girls that ‘you can do what I do. You have to believe in yourself, choose good people around you’.”
So, had she not believed in herself and chosen good people around her, where does Mwai think she would be? “Maybe I’d be back in the village,” she smiles. “Maybe getting married. You know, when you’re in the village girls (are) just getting married. I’d be maybe having five kids now, you know?”
Instead, she is fulfilling the sporting promise that first came to notice at netball’s 2009 World Youth Cup, which led to an offer to join the (Mornington) Peninsula Waves in Australia’s secondary league. From there, she spent three seasons in Christchurch, and in 2015 was named player of the tournament at the Netball World Cup in Sydney.
Last year, Mwai became a priority signing for the Vixens, and soon became a firm crowd favourite with her high-leaping acrobatics, look-away passes and unpredictable streak. “Sometimes I just need to do something funny because you can’t be every time serious,’’ says the dual Commonwealth Games representative, fond of keeping defenders guessing by substituting basketball-style lay-ups for more conventional netball play, and known to occasionally surprise even herself. “I don’t know,’’ she admits, laughing, “sometimes (it) just happens!’’
“She’s just ferociously competitive. Every training session she’s just going hard at it, she wants the ball,” says coach McKinnis of the goaler fondly known to all as “MJ”. And becoming, for all the right reasons, better known all the time.
RACV is the Premium Partner of Melbourne Vixens.
Photo: Meredith O’Shea.