It’s a long way from Malawi to an icy Scottish winter, but Towera Vinkhumbo couldn’t be happier. In January her new home is some 25 degrees Celsius colder than the Warm Heart of Africa – affectionately nicknamed for the warmth of it’s people rather than it’s climate – but she isn’t fazed. She’s snuggled up by a heater on cold days, relishing staying indoors even to play netball.
She said, “The facilities are very different here. We play inside, and can play or go to the gym at night. People can wake up, go to school, and then do sports afterwards. In Malawi the only time we train is in the morning.”
As a young student, that narrow window for activity caused friction between Towera and her parents. She explained, “My parents were against my decision to play sport. The facilities are limited. There are no indoor venues or lighting. If it rains, or darkness falls, sport stops. So training and games happen during the day, when you are supposed to be at school.
“If you want to play sport it does effect your education. My parents wanted me to wait till I finished school.”
The ninth of eleven children, many of Towera’s elder siblings were talented athletes and a strong example to her. While she would eventually outshine them all, as a child she grew up kicking a chikwati (ball made of plastic paper) in the streets. Football was her initial sport of choice – it was played at primary school, and she was too young for netball which was only played at club level.
Towera was so prodigiously talented that she was selected for the national soccer team at the age of just 13. Malawi’s first international tournament was in Harare, a dusty 600 kilometre road trip away. She said, “I was allowed to go because I was with my eldest sister and she was captaining the team. She guided me in everything. I played the games, but I can’t remember much about them because I was so young.”
Three of Towera’s older sisters were heavily involved with both netball and football, while her oldest brother, Aubrey, was a famous soccer player. She decided to follow in their footsteps. “I would see them playing sport and enjoying it, and my parents on the other hand said I should go to school. I liked to travel, but I wasn’t concentrating on my education, so it was a difficult decision for me.”
At the time the national women’s football team weren’t performing well, sponsors withdrew, and a freeze was placed on attending international tournaments. Towera said, “We were training but not able to play matches. Then my sister, who was captain at the time, said, ‘Come and join my netball team.’
“But the officials said that I couldn’t be in team because I was too young.”
Luckily for Towera, she was noticed by the legendary Griffin Saenda, her club coach and the long time coach of the Malawi Queens national team. “He said although I was young I had good height, and he would develop me little by little. So I was able to train although I couldn’t play games.
“Griffin has been part of my whole netball journey, like a father, until he passed away last year. When there were challenges and I was going to quit netball, he was the one who said, ‘No my daughter, don’t do this, don’t do this.’ He would counsel me, and tell me the proper ways to do things.”
Like the rest of the Queens, Towera faced immense challenges to keep playing netball. In addition to the restricted training times and outdoor concrete courts, finance was a major problem. She said, “To train, we had to use our own money. I had to ask my parents for money for transport to get there.
“Sometimes, we had no sponsors. We had to bring food, buy shoes to wear, training kits and even bandaids. Even if we were injured, we had to treat ourselves because we had no team doctor.
“All the responsibility for money was on my parents, and there were times when I couldn’t attend training because of that.”
While Towera has recently rejoined the national football team again, she said she was, ‘picked and dropped, picked and dropped’ before she became a permanent fixture in the Malawi netball team. As a 19 year old, she was selected for the first of her three Commonwealth Games, and has also competed at a trio of Netball World Cups.
Ranked sixth in the world, Malawi have had some famous victories over the years; none more so than at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. They triumphed over New Zealand, their first win over the current world champions, and the crowd favourites celebrated with flair. Towera said, “When we win a game, we feel like it’s a great achievement. We dance, we sing, especially our local music. It’s our custom, and it’s just happiness.”
Just attending the Games in Australia was a challenge for Towera, racing against time to get fit after the birth of her daughter Nicole four months earlier. Helped by her sister, she started conditioning training only a few weeks after giving birth. Towera said, “Nicole was very young – between four and five months old – when I went to Australia to compete, so she stayed with my mother.”
Towera was signed by the Severn Stars to play in the Vitality SuperNetball League for the 2019/2020 season. She’d seen some of her national teammates play overseas, and wanted to emulate them. She said, “I didn’t expect it when I was approached, but it was a dream come true. I didn’t even ask what it would be like, I just thought, ‘This is my opportunity, this is my wish.’ I played four games when unfortunately the pandemic came, and the league was called off.
“I was away in the UK for eight months. First I waited in the belief that the league might resume (after a Covid enforced shutdown). When the announcement came that the season would stop, the airports in the UK were closed so I couldn’t go to Malawi, and then when the UK opened, the airports in Malawi had closed.”
When Towera eventually got home to see her family, Nicole didn’t recognise her. Towera said, “When I met her again last year I had been away for so long. She said, ‘Mum?’ – meaning my own mother – ‘Who is this person who has come to visit?’ It was funny at the time, and the pair got to know each other again as they enjoyed bike rides, park visits and the occasional icecream.
Now three and a half and with her mother back in Scotland, Nicole is old enough to speak daily to Towera on video calls. “She will tell my mum, ‘Call Towera, I want to speak with her.’ Then I might find I have a missed call after training, and I know that someone is missing her mum. She is a bit confused because I had to leave her when she was so young. I might only see her for a few months, then leave again.”
While it’s a wrench to leave her daughter behind, Towera does so knowing that she’s not only pursuing her own dreams, but working to give her daughter a good start in life. Life isn’t always easy for the women of Malawi, many of whom live in poverty. Towera said, “It’s a big problem for women who live in villages, and for traditional reasons many of the girls are forced to marry at a very young age. Some of them might lose their husband and are forced to move to the towns and live on the streets with their children.
“I’m happy now, because the government has brought in initiatives for change. They are reaching out to those girls and women through media channels and flyers, educating parents not to make their children marry early, but to go to school instead.”
Towera has her own experiences of the challenges that Malawi women may face. Three of her siblings have passed away – one of whom died during childbirth. Towera explained, “She was only 19 years old, and still studying. She left us with her newborn daughter, who weighed just 1 kilogram. That was tough for my parents, losing a daughter, and raising the child.
“Whenever I meet young people in Malawi I encourage them to work hard in school and to play sport. Even if they don’t ask me for my story, I try to talk to them. ‘If you want to be like Mwayi (Kumwenda), Joyce (Mvula) or even me, and have good stories in your life, then concentrate on your studies and also play sport.’ Because I believe that if you play sport, you won’t have time to do things that are bad for you.”
Towera was called up to the Strathclyde Sirens as an injury replacement for the 2021 season. She packed her bags and moved to Scotland – the first time she’d seen snow and experienced such low temperatures. She settled in well to the completely different lifestyle – living with her team captain, sourcing some African foods from a local shop, and even able to understand the difficult local brogue, having learned English alongside her first language, Chewa.
She said, “I feel like I’m not in a new team, but have been with my teammates for a long time, which is very blessed for me. My teammates ring me to see if I’m okay, so I don’t feel like I’m in a foreign land, but at home.”
With her sparkling but quiet humour, she said, “My captain guides me with the right foods, and we encourage each other to eat properly – no fizzy drinks or junk food, and lots of vegetables!”
Towera is also supported by her strong Christian faith. She seeks guidance for the decisions she makes, and trusts that God will keep her family safe back at home. “I put God in everything I do. This moment for me, for whatever I achieve, is from God. And I always pray before games, to keep everyone safe and there should not be any injuries to any player, from whichever team they are.”
Inspired by teammates and her faith, Towera is happy on a personal level, and having a sensationally good netball season. At 175 centimetres, she’s on the short side for a goal keeper, but her agility, athleticism and ability to read the play has Towera ranked as the league’s best defender. At the midway point of the season, she sits first for intercepts – some ten clear of anyone else, first for creating turnovers, and third for deflections.
She refuses to take the credit however, and with her innate modesty, says, “No one is good without their teammates, and my teammates are the best. They push me, saying, ‘Go for the intercepts.’ They and the supporters take a great love in my performance, and it makes me go the extra mile for them.
“As an athlete you have to have goals and you have to have wishes. I’m happy with my career, and I’m living in my wish. So I thank God, and thank everyone who has helped build my skills. Mr Saenda, my parents, my relatives. And I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported me and especially my Malawi and Sirens teammates for whatever we do.”