How life grew from a dirt court
In our village, Mzimba, we had a dirt court. Dust.
For balls, we used plastic bags and put them under the fire to melt, then moulded them with our hands and tied them with string. For the goal posts, we cut down trees, like the ones outside. The goal rings were made from old tyres, like the ones on cars.
I didn’t have shoes until I was 11 years old. It was different. I was feeling heavy to play with shoes. I had to get used to them.
It was a hard life, but everything you learn from.
I’m the last-born of eight children. One of my sisters passed away and my dad, Kennedy, passed away when I was very young. I don’t remember him. It was tough for us.
My mum, Costa, is a strong woman. She always encourages us. She grows corn and tomatoes and beans. The village has heaps of huts and small houses. I don’t know how many people live there, maybe 2000.
Growing up, I played netball in primary school, but I didn’t take it seriously. Then when I went to secondary school, I was playing because I was growing tall. One of the coaches from Malawi Queens, Griffin Sayenda, was the one who spotted me there because I was so tall.
She took me to town about 10 hours away. To Biantyre, which has about one million people. I was 15.
It was hard for me there because I was used to living with my mum. Every time I went to training, I was crying. Sometimes I was going, ‘I don’t want to do this, I just need to go back to the village to see my mum’. I wanted to go home, because life was different there.
But when I saw some of the players flying around, travelling, doing things, I was like, ‘Oh’. I was interested. I didn’t give up, because I saw how life changes for people in town. I was like, ‘If I work hard, maybe life can be better. So, I can’t give up. I need to do this’.
The first time I left Malawi, I went to South Africa, to Durban, to play with Malawi Queens, but I was just sitting on the bench. The next time was when I went to Cook Islands for the 2009 World Youth Cup.
I saw this big world. The ocean. Different people. New places. I didn’t know anything about them.
ACROSS THE SEAS
After the Cook Islands, I didn’t know that people from Australia wanted me, so I didn’t come the next year.
I wasn’t on Facebook, I wasn’t on anything. No communication, no phone, nothing. One of my sisters, she asked me about it, then one of the officials who works at the sports council in Malawi said, ‘Someone was talking about you’.
So, we heard about it in the newspaper in Malawi. Then one of my cousins, Hlupi Phiri, started talking to the people from Australia on Facebook, Shelley Haynes and Maxine Wauchope from the (Mornington) Peninsula Waves in the VNL.
I had to think very hard, because I didn’t know what to do. I thought life would be tough, but one of my cousins was encouraging me, saying, ‘You can go, Mwai, this is a good opportunity for you. Go’. But I was so nervous to come over.
When I was in Malawi, I was just thinking I would stay there and play, but then when I came to Australia I thought, ‘Oh, this is a good life. Opportunity. People live like this!’ Because you don’t know when you’re back home.
I was like, ‘I wish my mum could see this beautiful life’. She came in 2013 and, oh my God, she always talks about Australia, because she loves farming stuff and she thinks the people here are so nice. That was the first time my mum had seen me play. When I was catching the ball she was saying, ‘Shoot, shoot!’
For the goal posts, we cut down trees. The goal rings were made from old tyres, like the ones on cars.
I was living in Frankston and because Australians speak fast, I didn’t understand much at first. The coach would always write things down to talk to me, write notes for me. But I had a good sister, Keira Wills. I was living with her family. She always helped me every day, always talking to me because I was shy.
The food here was different for me. I was eating chips, hot chips, every day. And maybe vegetables a little bit! Malawian food is like nsima, which is maize with beef or chicken stew. The weather here was different, because I didn’t see this weather since I was born.
I missed my mum, my family, my village. At first, I was thinking every day, ‘How can I stay in this life?’ But I got used to it. I met nice people around me, so they were teaching me every day.
The New Zealand people saw me when I was playing for the Fury in the ANL. When I moved to Christchurch to play for Tactix, it took a little bit more getting used to.
I used to train very hard. I’d finish training and then I’d say, ‘But I need to go back again’. And one of my friends at Tactix, Anna Thompson, she would say, ‘MJ, what are you doing? We have just come from training and you are training again!’ I just wanted to improve myself.
I was happy to come back and play for Vixens last year, because when I was in Melbourne the first time, I used to watch these games, watch people like Tegan Philip, Geva Mentor, Bianca Chatfield. I was watching Vixens and talking to my friend while I was eating chips!
Then I said to my friend, ‘One day I will play on that court’.
I miss these Vixens girls when I go back to Malawi. They’re so nice to me. But it’s good also to get home.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
I built my mum a house with the money I get from netball. So my mum, she is now in a good place.
It’s in the village, but closer to where she can go and get groceries. She has got a shop, too, one of those African small shops, so I order some stuff for her to sell. Sugar, soap, stuff like that.
I don’t have my own house. Maybe I’ll start building soon! But I need to save, because they are really expensive.
One of my sisters lives in Zambia now. The rest of my family are in Malawi. We are very close. They’re so proud of me, so happy when they see me doing good.
People know me in Malawi, and they write about me in the newspaper, so that’s why when I go home I’m always visiting schools and helping them, giving them uniforms, books, and bags, not the plastic bags they use in the village.
When I’m walking down the street, they always say hello to me. They ask for autographs sometimes. It’s good for me to be a role model, because the girls in Malawi need to see that there is no limit in this life. You can achieve whatever you want to achieve.
I missed my mum, my family, my village. At first, I was thinking every day, ‘How can I stay in this life?’ But I got used to it.
Most of the girls in the village there, they get married very young, when they’re about 15. So that’s why I go mostly to the village areas – to talk to them, to encourage them. I tell them, ‘You can do what I do. You have to believe in yourself, choose good people around you’.
If I didn’t play netball I’d be having, like, five kids now, and living in the village. Oh my God. That would not be a good life! I’m so happy where I am now. Sometimes I don’t believe it, but it’s me.
Once I finish netball, I want to go back home and help these young girls grow through sport and school. I’m hoping I can do fundraising here maybe to build a small netball court in Malawi.
We don’t have any good courts and that’s why it’s hard for Australian girls to visit us and play netball. The Malawi Queens train outside, on concrete courts, but not good ones like here.
What I like playing for Vixens is we get stuff: our dresses, shoes, tracksuits. In Malawi when we play, we have to give stuff back, so it’s hard.
We had to give back everything after the Commonwealth Games, so I’m just thinking maybe one day when the girls are coming to Australia I should try to get some shoes for them that they can use for training. It’s very hard when you give back the shoes after competitions like the World Cup and have to play in those shoes for five years, 10 years.
Maybe some people who just throw stuff away want to donate some stuff? Some of the Vixens girls have given to me old clothes, old shoes to give to the Malawi people, and it makes them so happy, because some of them they don’t have things like this, not much. There’s a lot of poor people in the village, so we are trying to organise this, but it’s expensive to do it, too, to get stuff there.
When we beat New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games, it was a good achievement for us. We had never beaten them, so it was history for Malawi people that day.
The dance on the court after was good, yes, but next time we need to win gold first before we celebrate like that!
Malawi people always love dancing. It’s a national thing for us. It’s part of our culture, always everyone dancing. I love dancing, but I’m too shy with the Vixens girls to teach them how. Jo Weston loves it, and Chloe Watson. Not Kate Moloney.
I want Malawi to play netball like Australia, because Australian netball is very beautiful. I want to teach the girls to play more like that: strong netball, fast netball, hard netball. It’s good to watch. In Malawi, it’s slow, slow, slow, up to the goal post. And we need coaches. Lots of the best coaches are here in Australia.
It’s good for me to be a role model, because the girls in Malawi need to see that there is no limit in this life.
I’ve improved so much. My game has changed under Simone McKinnis and Di Honey. Always Simone says when we are training, ‘MJ, go hard, you can do this’. I always need to do what the coaches say. I always try.
I am competitive. Every time I want to win. Because I came from far away, I just need to win every time.
I’m enjoying it here now – I like the people, the food, the shopping, everything is just good. Australian people, they are so lucky.
I don’t have only netball friends. Most of the Malawian people in Melbourne, they are students, so sometimes I visit them, but most of the time I visit my former teams. Peninsula, they are like family now. Like Vixens.
I still don’t like the traffic, but I’m getting there. I’m enjoying driving. I’ve got a new car now, thank you so much Berwick Nissan. I like it! I like being able to go anywhere I want. Swimming? I’m trying my best.
I’m starting a course soon, studying beauty stuff, so when I go back to Malawi I can have a different job. I already have a shop there. I sell hair stuff. I have someone who works for me.
Sometimes I think I have dreamed this. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my God, am I here?’ Every morning when I wake up I always pray, ‘Thanks God for this life’.
Yes, we will dance if Vixens win the grand final. Oh, for sure. All of us. Even Kate.