Glasgow 2014: Mary Waya and the rise of the Malawi Queens 



She is a trained electrical engineer, a widowed mother of two, and has endured “fat” jibes from people watching her on court.

Yet Mary Waya has inspired a nation of women in Malawi, one of the World‘s poorest countries, to pick up a netball.

“People know her around the World just because of what she could do with the ball,” said netball commentator Anita Navin.

“It went around the body, through the legs and in the goal. Even against the tallest of defenders she can get round.”

Waya forged a 25-year playing career, competed at three Commonwealth Games, and helped develop an unorthodox playing style which saw the national team become known as the Harlem Globetrotters of netball.

Malawi netball at the Commonwealth Games

1998 – Malaysia

Finished fourth in group

2006 – Australia

Finished third in group. Lost fifth/sixth place play-off to Samoa

2010 – Delhi

Finished third in group. Won fifth/sixth place play-off against South Africa

Now, at 46, the former shooter is head coach of the Malawi Queens, who are ranked fifth in the World, and is set to attend her fourth Games in Glasgow.

She has achieved it with no formal training, basic facilities and minimal funding. But she insists: “No money, all the money – it wouldn’t matter. I’d still do it for free.”

Waya was born in Blantyre, Malawi, as one of 13 siblings. Her African homeland is a mainly agricultural country, and with more than half the population living below the poverty line, there were few opportunities to play sport.

Waya first became involved aged 12, when Harry – one of her three brothers to play football for the Malawi national team – brought back a netball he had picked up during a tour of the UK.

With no netball courts to practise on, she would simply play “wherever there was a space” and would learn skills from her siblings.

Mary WayaMary Waya made over 200 international appearances as a shooter for Malawi

“When I started playing, I was just following in the footsteps of my sisters. They were the best players for me because they were my teachers,” she told BBC Sport, from Malawi‘s training camp at the University of Gloucestershire.

“I was able to take on new ideas and new techniques and train myself. When I went to a tournament I was able to look at what the other players were doing and when I got back home I’d train myself and my friends.

“Most of the coaches around the World, they are former players who go and build up the children to be sports people. But in Malawi, we have to do it on our own.”

In 1995, after playing at club level with Southern Region side Tigeresses, Waya was called up for Malawi‘s first major international tournament outside Africa: the World Netball Championship in the British city of Birmingham.

It was her first time abroad, and she recalls being stared at by members of other teams, who cast comments on their physique and seeming lack of fitness.

But it was here the team lived up to the Globetrotters comparison. Like their American basketball counterparts, they showpieced tricks, flicks and fancy footwork to combat the height and strength of the more developed sides.

Malawi‘s Glasgow schedule – Pool A

Malawi v Northern Ireland – 24 July

New Zealand v Malawi – 25 July

Saint Lucia v Malawi – 26 July

Jamaica v Malawi – 28 July

Malawi v Scotland – 29 July

They finished second in their group, behind Jamaica, and it proved a turning point for Waya when she returned home.

“We came to England without any number in the rankings, but we became number eight,” she said. “We came from nothing and we had become something.

“People started coming to my home because I was the only person in the village who had a netball. Children were knocking on my door and asking ‘Mary – can we borrow your netball?’.

“I would take them and we would go and train somewhere, like at a primary school. From that moment, I said I wanted to be the person to help build Malawi netball.”

And her vision has become a reality; The Queens are now the most successful team the nation has ever produced.

Waya’s side are reigning as Africa‘s number one, and they are threatening to break through the dominant top four of Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and England – having beaten the latter two during the World Netball Series in 2012.

They finished sixth and fifth at the previous two Commonwealth Games in Australia and Delhi, and Waya is hopeful of going even further in her first Games since her retirement from playing in 2010.

Malawi netball players celebrateThe Malawi Queens celebrate beating England in the Netball World Series in 2012

“We have set targets. We know that we are number five and we have to set a strategy to finish first or second in our group so we can proceed to the semi-finals.

“It’s just a matter of believing. With the way the girls are playing, I hope that we can beat one or two of the giant teams in front of us.”

Back in Malawi, Waya has become the first fully-trained netball tutor in Africa and has begun opening free netball “clinics” to help nurture young talent in the region, with the hope of training children alongside their education.

She has done all this as well as coaching in Tanzania, completing college courses and taking sole care of her two children since her husband’s sudden death in 2010.

And Navin remarks: “She’s so passionate in what can be a difficult country and a difficult situation. What Mary’s fought to do is help others and bring others through. She’s made anything possible.”

By Caroline Chapman
BBC Sport
24 July 2014 Last updated at 00:41 GMT

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