The fact that Mwai Kumwenda will be taking four big bags home to Malawi for Christmas does not mean she is packing for a shock one-way trip.
The star shooter’s luggage will contain her teammates’ second hand runners, leftover Melbourne Vixens clothing, netballs and other equipment to distribute in her village of Mzimba. It was there that Kumwenda grew up throwing pieces of melted plastic around a dirt court, using trees as goal posts and old car tyres as rings.
“Maybe the (Vixens) girls they only wear shoes for one year, so all the time I just ask the girls ‘don’t throw things away’,’’ Kumwenda says. “I can just take them to Malawi and give it to people because in Malawi a lot of people are poor.
“Also the Vixens give me some old uniforms and, up to now, some of the schools don’t have balls, so I always give them to the village to share.
“They are very happy. They always say ‘you need to go and thank the people in Australia’, every time. They are so grateful because they don’t have these things. How lucky am I? I’m lucky here because everything comes. In Malawi things are very difficult to find.’’
Kumwenda was not so fortunate in the penultimate round of 2018, when she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in Perth against the West Coast Fever and was forced to spend almost a year on the sidelines.
Having never previously been injured, the now-30-year-old had never heard of an ACL, and it was only later when Vixens’ staff, including long-time physiotherapist Steve Hawkins, explained the ramifications that the tears began to flow.
This season brought more waterworks, but happily so, both beforehand and in the moment when the crowd favourite returned to a grand ovation with a little wave and then three goals in the last four minutes of a round 11 game safely in hand against the Fever.
“I was crying, I was like ‘how can I play netball?’,’’ Kumwenda laughs now, admitting she was “even afraid to look” around to see how many others were similarly overcome by the emotion of the moment.
“I can say it was the best day when I get on the court, everyone was so excited. That was very special for me. I just need to thank the girls and everybody for that support.’’
It was a small and slightly nervous cameo, but a significant one. Phew. MJ was back. And while not able to break into the starting seven, she was nevertheless given court-time in each of the Vixens’ last four games - including more than three quarters of the season-ending preliminary final loss to the eventual champions, the NSW Swifts.
“Each time I get back in the court I always improve, because it has been long time for me to play,'' she says. "I’ve been training with the girls but it was good for me to show the coach, to show the people, I can do this, that the injury doesn’t stop me from anything.
“I was getting more confident. I was so excited to play.’’
Ecstatic, too, to sign a new contract with the club she considers her “family”, and adamant there was no chance she would seek a new home interstate.
“No, no, no, no! It wasn’t hard decision for me because the way Vixens support me all over this injury and help me with everything, I was like ‘oh, I can’t go anywhere, I just need to stay with the Vixens’,’’ she says. “Sometimes when you go to another team it’s hard to get happy because Vixens, we are like family.’’
It also included a “rehab” branch in 2019 in which Kumwenda was joined by fellow knee victim Rahni Samason and the recently re-contracted Tayla Honey, who tore her Achilles late in the pre-season. That sisterhood in the gym during challenging times was a highlight for MJ, while another positive was the whose newly-buffed physique that she admits has raised eyebrows - including her mother’s.
“Even when I’m wearing short sleeve people are like ‘oh, MJ, look at your muscles!'. I’ve been spending the whole time in the gym, so I feel very strong, yeah, because I’ve never trained like this, but I’ll still keep going.
“Even sometimes when I talk with my mum on Skype on my sister’s phone, she’s oh, you look, like very muscly, oh, you look so strong’.’’
Soon the pair will be speaking in person, with a family Christmas gathering in Mzimba that will include a morning visit to the local church, then the favourite maize dish nsima and perhaps some beef or chicken stew afterwards, shared with her siblings and eight nephews and nieces.
Pre-season training will resume when Kumwenda returns in January to her adopted Melbourne home and, unlike last year, the much-loved shooter - who is still doing two weekly court sessions with assistant coach Sharelle McMahon, plus extra gym and running work before her November 20 departure - will be able to join in.
Before then, she will be recognised, often, on her trip back to Malawi and, when asked over and over about Australia, Kumwenda will reply as she always does. That it’s a good life. The people are nice. She is enjoying her career.
“I think one day in the future when maybe I will go home, I’ll have a lot to explain to the people,’’ she says. “And I will thank Australia, the Melbourne Vixens, for what they have give(n) to me.’’
Written by Linda Pearce