Malkia star Wacu: I was born to win

In another world, Jane Wairimu (better known as Wacu) would be an actress, a singer, a dancer or a deejay. The Kenyan volleyball ace, who is a decorated national team player, is also an entertainer who dishes out comic relief to those around her.

Her music collection features reggae classic hits by Bob Marley and Alpha Blondy, Bongo tunes by Diamond Platinumz, Mbosso and Harmonize, and Kenyan tracks by Ekko Dydda and Otile Brown.

She is a lover of horror and action movies and the latest James Bond film - No Time To Die - is on her to watch list.

A hopeless romantic and generous giver, the soft-spoken setter for the national volleyball team, Malkia Strikers, says she can also be annoying to those around her.

Celebrated as Africa’s most awarded setter of our time, and the first African to break into the world’s top-10 most valued volleyball players, Wacu looks back at the events surrounding her humble upbringing and concludes it is by default that she is the iconic star that she is today.

However, she says, when she finally discovered her purpose in life, she never turned back and made a decision to make it worthwhile.

“After high school, I decided I was not going to look back and made a resolve that volleyball would be the business that opens doors for me. I recall back in 2006, a Japanese coach told me that in another two years I would be the best setter in Africa. Back then, I was not even being fielded in my new Pipeline team and it all looked like a pipe dream,” says Wacu.

During this interview in up-town Nairobi, Wacu is accompanied by Solanna Camille, a volleyball professional from Seychelles.

Camille has been following Wacu’s sporting career closely and is in the country for the sixth time in three years, in efforts to bolster their friendship. This time she is here on a bigger mission: to see Wacu’s star shine.

“Wacu is always the heart of the team. We have been playing at the same Anse Royale club in Seychelles and I recall our first encounter when she offered me a drink after our game and I told her I do not take alcohol.

“She laughed and said I was wasting my life. I told her she was wasting hers. Since then, we have been best of friends. That is why I travelled to Cameroon to see her qualify for the Tokyo Olympics,” says Camille.

The 36-year-old Wacu, who hails from Nyeri County, is a testimony of resilience and triumph. She once dropped out of school because her mother was unable to raise her fees, and was often demeaned for coming from a poor background.

At some point, her teammates looked down upon her because of her small frame. But the sad tune has since changed, and the now decorated officer inspires as she speaks of the rough path she has walked. 

“I attended DEB Primary School in Nyeri and growing up, life was really tough. I had to put up with being in and out of school as mum could not raise school fees for all of us. I got used to wearing tattered school uniform. Thank God my mum was a tailor, as the patches used to be really good,” says the then tomboy who was always nursing injuries from playing football with boys.

She adds; “I could not see much coming from academics as much as I loved Mathematics. There was no way I was going through the full education system since my mother could not afford it, and that is why I decided to embrace sports. I was an athletics champion, an avid footballer, a rising volleyball star and a gymnast.”

Wacu was unable to get her KCPE results since she had a huge fee balance. Her mother, helpless at the time, asked the teenage girl to join her sister Gladys Muthoni who owned a salon.

“Girls my age were getting pregnant and contracting HIV. I feared this would happen to me. When I got an offer to repeat Standard Eight in a different school and get my results without bothering my mother with fees, I took the opportunity,” says Wacu.

But her tough season was not over yet.

One of Wacu’s teachers started eyeing her; and on three different times, she says, he attempted to rape her, in the staffroom and on her way to school. Young Wacu survived the ordeal but was traumatised to a point of wanting to quit school altogether.

She eventually got of 311 out of 500 in her KCPE exam. “I joined Tetu Secondary School at the end of second term and proceeded to Form Two the following year. This is when I started playing volleyball, a technical game I knew nothing about,” says Wacu.

Wacu became so good in volleyball that after sitting her Form Four exam, her school principal urged her to stay on, even as reputable scouting agencies and coaches came knocking.

The fight between clubs in the national volleyball league to sign her up even before finishing high school was not by accident. She got offers from Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), Prisons and Pipeline, the latter being the first professional club she played for.

Having become the new volleyball star to watch, thanks to her high school volleyball tournament exploits, coaches began scouting her talent.

“Club volleyball is competitive. You have to work extra hard to earn your place, especially in the first team as well as the national team. When I joined Pipeline, I was not even among the top four setters.

“It was a daunting task to be included in the Malkia national team that would contest for the FIVB World Championships in Japan in 2006 under coach Sadatoshi Sugawara, assisted by Paul Bitok. I made it to Japan. We had big names like Dorcas Ndasaba, Mildred Odwako, Catherine Wanjiru and Janet Wanja,” says Wacu.

After the event, the sportswoman returned home with Sh800,000, which signalled her that volleyball could be her livelihood. 

She says: “Ironically, I had been playing with the Lioness National Football team while still at Pipeline, something Bitok asked me to drop if I had to make sense of my volleyball career. I still love football and support AFC Leopards and Arsenal.”

It was after the Japan outing that Wacu received an offer to join the Kenya Prisons Women’s Volleyball team. She led the team into winning the National Kenya Volleyball Federal title for five years in a row, besides being the pivotal point for the national team.

The former Chamalieres (France) player has also won the best setter in Africa trophy on several occasions and is the first African setter to achieve the top 10 setters in the world prestigious spot.

“It is a very emotional moment when you get the national anthem played in honour of your country after an international triumph. I have opted to take a break from the national team as I want to give younger players a chance. I have made investments in the matatu sector and elsewhere. I now want to focus on talent search, where I will help young people interested in sports. I was born to win,” says Wacu.

Wacu, who is stationed at the Peace Support Training Centre at the Kenyan Defence Staff College, says that being an officer requires discipline.

“It is about serving humanity. When people see me, they see Wacu the volleyball girl, not the officer. It is a balancing act navigating the two.”