Many families have contributed so much to the joys, freedoms and successes of this country. Many more continue to fly high Malawi’s flag in the international arena.
The victories wouldn’t be complete in sports, especially without highlighting Malawi’s own Towera Vinkhumbo-Nyirenda, the 31-year-old unwavering defender, whose skills have been a rock for the national netball and football teams for decades.
Her resilient defensive talents have not only helped Malawi female football as seen in the recent 2020 Tokyo Olympic qualifiers against Mozambique, but she has also seen the Queens compete with the best at Netball World Cup and Fast5 Series.
Towera played her first international football game in the Cosafa tournament in 2001, in Zimbabwe, when she was only 14—making her the youngest player in the team.
She, however, started playing both netball and football while in primary school. Then, she was in Standard Six.
“I was everywhere and there was also my sister Salome Vinkhumbo. She was in Standard Seven. We were playing together and our coach, then, was Catherine Chikandula whom we went with to Mozambique in the Tokyo qualifiers,” she says.
Chikandula is team manager for the Malawi women’s football team. Towera says she was both her class and sports teacher in primary school and she taught Towera how to play both sports.
However, Towera’s motivation stemmed from hearing of her late brother Aubrey Vinkhumbo, popularly known as ‘Des Walker’ by the Mighty Wanderers faithful of the time.
Aubrey was nicknamed after England’s Desmond Sinclair Walker who made 321 appearances for Nottingham Forest and won 59 caps for England between 1988 and 1993.
He also scooped a number of ‘Player of the Year’ accolades.
A pacey and hard-tackling defender with a brilliant defensive mind, small wonder, Aubrey picked up the name, as he operated at the heart of the Nomads defence, where his calmness and dazzling defence skills shown through.
“I could see them when the car came to pick them and fans stormed our house singing,” says Towera.
She was always happy whenever she heard commentators on the radio talking about Aubrey and his mates, the likes of James Mpinganjira.
She recalls playing football in the streets with the boys her age.
“We used to play the local ball made out of plastic papers (chikwati),” she says.
The time her brother played, she was quite young.
“I never went to watch any of the games he played in. However, I always heard about him on the radio. And whenever I walked the streets, I would be referred to as Vinkhumbo’s sister,” she adds.
She says although she didn’t have the chance to go see him; people motivated her whenever she heard her brothers’ name.
Owing to her age, he couldn’t have told her about football. She never had the chance to be mentored by Aubrey, however, her sister Lucy made outstanding contributions to her sports career.
“Lucy was there for me as I was the youngest in the squad to Zimbabwe and she was the captain at the time. She encouraged her to be better, to achieve and it is Lucy who brought me from Lilongwe where she was playing for DD Sunshine Football Club coached by Davie Dube to join Escom Sisters Netball Club in Blantyre, now called Kukoma Diamonds,” she says.
Towera, explains that since 2001 she balanced both sports and in the same year, she played in the Under 21 Malawi netball team in the World Cup in Cooks Island.
At the time, she was vice-captain of the team.
She then went back to football where she played in the home and away games against Ethiopia in 2004, similarly with Zambia where she says the away game did not go so well.
In 2006, she stopped playing in the football national team and concentrated on perfecting her skills in netball.
She then participated in the Under 21 African Cup of Nations in Namibia.
Towera joined the senior national team in the Diamond Challenge in the Republic of South Africa, the Commonwealth Games in India and made her first senior World Cup appearance in Singapore in 2011, at the age of 23.
Prior to 2014, she anchored the Queens in the World Netball Fast5 Series in New Zealand.
The Fast5 Series began in October 2009 and is contested on an annual basis between the top six national netball teams in the world rankings as listed by the International Netball Federation (IFN).
Towera marshalled her defence in the 2015 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
And another Fast5 Series in 2016 in Melbourne, Australia, she helped to break the impenetrable fortress of the top four best netball teams in the world at the tournament where the Queens earned a bronze medal.
They beat one of the netball super powers England 35-32 after an epic battle, making the Queens the third fastest team in the world.
She has anchored the team in the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and is expected to continue anchoring the team in the upcoming competitions.
Her contribution in 2019 to the national female football comes after a seven-year break, yet her goal marshalling and shape remains unbeatable.
“I can say that it’s in my blood. I cannot stay without doing exercises,” says Towera, an employee of Sunbird Mount Soche, where she works as a gym trainer.
She says her avid physical fitness life makes her fit to play in both national teams.
“Currently, in netball we are in off season. The last time we played was in January, which is why I am able to return to football,” she says.
Ironically, Towera is also a basketball player who has once played for Eagles. Currently, she trains in netball in the morning and in evening she plays and trains Mikoko Mystics basketball team.
However, her sports terrain has not been all rosy as most of the girls she started the football journey with stopped. Her continuation, she says, has been due to God’s grace.
Most of her playmates quit football because there came a time that sponsorship was not enough to sustain the girls.
Of her contributions to Malawi, Towera says God chose her to fly the Malawi flag both in netball and football.
“There is always a line-up of excellent players before the final squad is selected, but I get selected because God wills it that I stand and represent my country. I am proud to represent Malawi in both sports,” she says.
There are injuries in the ground, but she has played for so long now and God has protected her as she has had no injury.
She also says her parents have been there for her, praying for her whenever she travels for games outside, and at home.
The Vinkhumbo has contributed a lot to Malawi’s sport. After raising Aubrey, who made his mark among enthusiasts in the local football clubs and Lucy, who is currently the team manager for Kukoma Diamonds, a team which has dominated local netball for years, they also raised Towera.
As if that was not enough, the Vinkhumbos have also raised Malawi’s flag through Salome who, alongside Towera, in their childhood played for Mbawala.
Salome was the captain of the national netball team in the Cosafa 2018 in South Africa. She is also instrumental in the women’s football team as well as an avid basketball player.
As a defender, Towera unpacks her resilience in goal protection as a single entity across all the three sports. She says defence is not different.
“A defender’s job is to protect the goal, the spirit I have of defending in netball is the same I have in football,” she adds.
On how the women’s football can be raised to another level, she cites players’ ability to play on both grass and tuff a plus, but suggests that most international friendlies would place Malawi on a highly competitive scale.
From her experience, she says women need friendlies more and also need to have a super league, like the men’s.
In netball, she says the courts are made of cement while players struggle to navigate on wooden courts when they go elsewhere.
The seasoned players, she says easily adjust, but the lack of adaptation for players has impacted negatively on performance.
She, however, stresses that wood, as opposed to cement, cushions players from injuries.
To overcome this, she suggests building of similar courts both indoors and outdoors.
She says lack of modern arenas prevent international teams from playing friendlies with Malawi, a step that could help strengthen and prepare the Queens more for victory on the international stage.
Of her career plans in sports, Towera says she cannot disclose yet.
Towera was born in Blantyre at Chitawira Private Hospital on February 14 1988. She is the ninth-born of 11 children–six girls and five boys, three of whom died.
To would-be and current netballers and female footballers, she says good character, humbleness and being God-fearing, all things are possible. n