When group training for the Melbourne Vixens was halted in March and the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball season delayed, Mwai Kumwenda’s options did not include a return to her distant Malawian village of Mzimba.
Instead, she drove 135 kilometres to a dairy-farming town that has proved to be the next best thing.
As her former housemate Kadie-Ann Dehaney flew to Perth as part of Jamaican quartet under Jhaniele Fowler’s roof, Kumwenda’s direction was the rolling hills of Victoria’s south-east. Leongatha is home to the McCahon family that first hosted Kumwenda when she was a Peninsula Waves’ VNL debutant in 2011, and has been the 30-year-old’s sanctuary of sorts for the past two months.
“It’s quiet, and I love it. It’s very quiet,’’ she smiles. “Reminds me of when I was in the village in Malawi a long time ago.’’
It also, Kumwenda says, has 'everything' she needs. There is a garage gym, partly stocked with equipment borrowed from the Victorian Institute of Sport. Out the back is a netball court where she can shoot her 200 goals on days off from Vixens’ Zoom training sessions. And two minutes walk away, a football oval where she runs.
Cows? “Yeah, there’s a lot!’’
Inside, surrogate parent Leigh Shelley-McCahon - whose daughter Sarah was Kumwenda’s teammate and close friend at the Waves - is honing the star shooter’s culinary skills. “Sometimes I’m cooking dinner, sometimes baking,’’ says ‘MJ’. “My ‘mum’, the one I’m living with, she’s a good cooker, so she is now helping me a lot. Banana bread, yes, and this week we will be doing carrot cake.’’
Watching Netflix movies, unsurprisingly, has been another favoured pastime, with a particular favourite the 2019 British film, 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'. The plot: an enterprising farm boy from a poor village in Malawi decides to build a wind turbine to help save his community from drought. (Spoiler alert: it ends well.)
Kumwenda, a script-writer's dream, helps her people in other ways - most recently by distributing bags of netball clothing, second-hand footwear and balls donated by her teammates, Netball Victoria and the Waves, among others, on her annual off-season trip home to Mzimba in November-December.
“All the stuff I get from Vixens, I give it to my village community, so people, they are very happy. They always say thank you to Australia people who help them,’’ she says.
“I took a lot. Dresses from different clubs, and some of the girls give me some shoes, and Melbourne Vixens give me some balls. So that was good to visit some of the schools that have never had the Gilbert ball. They are very excited to use it.’’
Pleased, too, were her mother and siblings to see the sports star of the family she helps to support, financially, with Kumwenda admitting her gym-buffed physique did not go unnnoticed. “My mum was like ‘oh, you look big!’ I’m like ‘yes, mum, I’ve been working hard for a long time. Everyone was like ‘ooh, MJ, you look very muscly!’.’’
Kumwenda was back in Melbourne when pre-season training resumed in January, having made her emotional on-court return in Round 11 from the knee reconstruction that followed her ACL tear in the disastrous penultimate round of 2018.
Those first few comeback minutes were gradually extended, and the 75-gamer was on court for more than three-quarters of the Preliminary Final loss to the eventual champions, the NSW Swifts. The Vixens’ February trip across the Tasman helped to further restore Kumwenda’s confidence in both her body and her game.
“I didn’t get any sore knees. I feel with my knee I can do everything now, so I’m happy about that,’’ she says, thankful, as ever, to long-time Vixens’ physio Steve Hawkins and strength and conditioning coach John Tascone, as well as former rehab partners Tayla Honey and Rahni Samason.
“I think when I played some of the games last year, it helps me a lot, because I couldn’t play for a long time, but each game back helps me to keep going. When I went to New Zealand I feel better that I can play now in the court. Like I can do everything. Like I did before.’’
Is she a different player in any way, post-ACL? “No, not much, no. I just feel stronger, because I have never trained hard, the way I trained last year. So better. Now I feel like my knees are like normal again.’’
The contrast, obviously, is with life in the time of coronavirus, although signs are increasingly positive that some form of SSN season will be possible in the coming months.
“I was so excited to train with the girls, we always push each other, so I was a little bit sad after the announcement, but everything now is new for everyone,’’ Kumwenda says.
“I miss the girls are lot because they are like family. We always laugh, we always go for breakfasts, we always meet every day. So I don’t feel like sometimes it’s normal life, because I’m used to be(ing) with them all the time.’’
Instead, contact that is constant is also occurring remotely, from her temporary home in a sports-loving south-east Gippsland town that now has a recognisable new face. “Some people ask me ‘do you play for Vixens?’ I’m like, ‘yes’,’’ Kumwenda laughs. “We have some people from Leongatha who follow Vixens a lot.’’
She finishes with a parting message, applicable everywhere: "please stay safe, fit, well and healthy, at home''.
Written by Linda Pearce