By Duncan Mlanjira
Malawi national netball team, the Queens are one of the most glamorous teams on the international scene having impressed at the very highest stage of the sport, whose giants are nations like New Zealand, Australia, England and Jamaica.
But despite Malawi failing to break into the top five in the world of international netball, the Queens are still regarded as a strong force to reckon with and all these giants, New Zealand, Australia, England and Jamaica — when they face the Queens — do not just file into the court thinking it will be a walkover.
This is so because for a long time, the Queens dictated the game at the African level, especially at southern African regional one — the Confederation of African Netball Associations (COSANA).
And by the time they showed up at the world stage, they caused some trouble never expected of them and from then on, the Queens left their indelible mark — despite that this sport plays second fiddle back home.
In the nostalgic past, sport was taken very seriously right from the grassroots through primary schools. For every inter-school tournament or friendly matches, the first match between the school teams was netball.
The learners, both boys and girls, would sing and cheer around a small court with others climbing up sorrounding trees to catch full glimpse of the action. It was always a great feeling when the home team won.
Next would be the football match and this is where the girls stole the show through their vociferous support, spiced with songs of encouragement for the best players on the pitch — it was an event none could afford to miss, including the teachers.
These are school tournaments that bred national netball giants and amongst the legends that lifted the Queens to the world status is Peace Chawinga-Kaluwa alongside other legends such as Mary ‘Atcheya’ Waya, Connie Mponela, Emma Mzagada, Annie Nyanga, Emmie Waya, late Jessie Mwale, Slyvia Malenga, Emily Nyanga, late Kester Nyanga, just to mention a few.
Peace has played for the Queens for 21 years and guess what, her highlight of all the highlights is when she made it into the final selection of the 1990 squad.
“I say that this was my highlight of all the highlights because I made it into the squad on my first selection to go into camp with the seniors.
“It wasn’t easy to make that grade because then the seniors were at their peak and I was just 16 years old.”
She started playing serious netball whilst in Standard 7 when she was at St. Pius Girls Primary School and from time to time she and her peers would, after school, visit Blantyre’s youth sports Mecca — the Blantyre Youth Centre (BYC).
She says she used to go to BYC to watch seniors play and learn a few tricks she could use playing for St. Pius Girls Primary School team.
After impressing when participating in a Mayor’s Trophy final — the pinnacle of schools championships — Peace was spotted by late Mr. Nyalapa, who was then coach for the senior league side, Shelter Nets, sponsored by Malawi Housing Corporation.
“Mr. Nyalapa is the one who opened the doors for me to start playing netball at club level and after that, there was no going back. I owe a lot to him and may his soul continue to rest in peace.”
Her continued excellent performance at Shelter Nets then caught the eye of the national team and thereafter coach Edith Kaliati approached her to join MBC Radiowomen.
The top teams in the the Blantyre league then were MBC Radiowomen, Admarc Tigresses and Whitex, sponsored by cloth manufacturers David Whitehead Limited. These were dominant team as they were kept exchanging trophies.
MBC Radiowomen, one great team which then had great players such as the phenomenon Waya sisters — Emmie and Mary waya — as well as late Jessie Mwale, Slyvia Malenga, Emily Nyanga, late Kester Nyanga just to mention a few.
Tigresses, then sponsored by Admarc, roped in Peace and this is the side that propelled her for the prestigious call-up to the mighty Queens.
She said she chose Tigresses because they “offered me a job at Admarc and apart from that Tigresses was a team with a lot of talented big names.
“For me, being as young as I was, saw an opportunity for a challenge — to compete against big names was the kind of competition I wanted because I am the kind of a person who loves tough competition.
“All throughout, Admarc Tigresses were a great team and had good players but there was a particular year our team was involved in a car accident that had some players injured.
“As a result, that year we only had 9 players left to play for the whole season and we managed to be so solid throughout the season and won all trophies without losing a match.
“That was an awesome moment I will never forget. Every player was so dedicated, more so to boost the morale of the injured players to take it easy and recuperate peacefully knowing the team was in good hands.
“There were no excuses for us because we had the best players in the 9 that we had at that particular moment and also that God was on our side.”
The notable players that made Tigresses whilst Peace was aboard include late Felia Tsonga; the Simengwa trio of late Josephine, Andrina and Midred; Judith Kaira Chalusa; Eleanor Mapulanga; late Aida Tiringamawa, late Connis Mhone; Jean Matola; Annie Mopiha; Caroline Mtukule; Linda Magombo; Beatrice Mpinganjira; Ruth Kaipa; late Stella Kumwembe and her sister Tiyezge Chawinga, just to mention a few.
“Mixed with some more new breed such as Grace Sindi and others, we had a lovely time on the court,” Peace said.
It was not a mean achievement then in 1990 to be called for the national team and at just 16 years old. When she responded to the call up, she just thought it was to make up for the numbers in training.
But lo and behold, the coach then Grace Sithole with Edith Kaliati as team manager, saw the potential in the lad and immediately made the traveling squad.
“And that is why I keep saying this was my highlight of all the highlights of my netball career because it opened doors to great things.
“My first match for the Queens was in Namibia and against Namibia, the hosts. I played for less than a quarter but it was my proudest moment. I came in place of Aladyama Jetumbaya and played with Judith Kaira. The others were Emmie Waya, late Panganeni Nyanga, just to mention a few.
“On that trip we also had Mr. Griffin Saenda, who accompanied us as a government official and from then on he became so much attached to netball up to becoming the best coach we all know of him.”
In the 21 years she played for the Queens, Peace won many COSANA titles and the only championship that eluded them was the East and Central Africa championship.
“But since I joined the Queens, we had always been the champions until 2010 when the competition for the title became stiff with the coming in of South Africa.
“But still Malawi Queens were supreme and still are because nowadays, when African teams, including South Africa, beat the Queens, they celebrate like they have won the title itself.”
Her most memorable match ever for the Queens?: “The COSANA final game which we played against South Africa at their own back yard.
“I remember them beating us in the group stages but still we qualified for the semis only to meet again in the final. This time around, we told each other; ‘come on girls, we can’t let these South Africans shame us again, let’s go teach them a lesson’.
“We went on the court all fired up and managed to beat them and claim the title on their home soil. It was such a sweet revenge and no wonder the bitter rivalry was born between us.”
The players she admires most locally that played in her generation were many players, and she said they had terrific and admirable skill and everything that makes an excellent netballer.
“But the likes of Emmie Waya, Judith Kaira, Slyvia Malenga, Eleanor Mapulanga, Mary Waya — not forgetting the skills of the late Aida Tiringamawa, the Nyanga sisters Annie and Panganeni — were simply awesome.
“These guys were in the league of their own — in other words irreplaceable,” she said.
Have you any ambition to lead netball as an administrator?: “I took a road where I see myself as a coach, that’s the role I enjoy and the place I feel I can effectively contribute to netball.
“Administration? No, not for me. I can’t do administration. But there are times when I see the mess that usually happen in the sport makes me so sad and makes me regret that maybe I should have tried venturing in the sport’s administration.
“It’s very unfortunate and I weep all the time to see that netball nowadays is wasting talent. From 1989 to 2015 netball produced a lot of players, some of whom took part in umpiring some Inn administration but now it’s rare to find such in the now systems that is wasting talent.
“But then something always tells me my calling is to be closer to the youngsters and inspire them on the technical part of the game so that we can keep the Queens to be the best that we are.
“I cry and pray for that day when I will be able to see that kind of netball which we enjoyed then — in which administrators and players were so patriotic just to make sure netball ticks.
“Netball was a place to be. Missing netball was like the pang we feel when we lose someone in death. We really enjoyed being part and parcel of this beautiful game.
“Never will I close my chapter without thanking the parents who took care of us, making sure we are where we are now and it wasn’t easy for them.
“But, yes, they were parents for us — our former coaches Grace Sithole, Edith Kaliati and Griffin ‘Zagallo’ Saenda.
“Not forgetting our administrators, Mai Nyika, Mai Bhima, late Margret Kadangwe, Mai Chinunda and Mai Mita. These people have a place in my heart,” said the legend Peace Chawinga, married to Kondwani Kaluwa.
When we talk about the best that was in her generation — Aladyama Jetumbaya, Jessie Mwale, Felia Tsonga, Panganeni Nyanga, Future Mtegha, Rose Kadango, Andrina Simengwa, Emmie and Mary Waya, Judith Kaira, Eleanor Mapulanga, Slyvia Malenga, Aida Tiringamawa, Ellen Tchafu among others, Peace has a peaceful place amongst these giants of the game locally and internationally.