Celebrated former Kenyan international volleyball player Catherine Mabwi has gone down history books as both the only Kenyan and first woman from Africa to attain the Federation of International Volleyball (FIVB) instructor rank.
Coach Mabwi, who has handled several Kenyan women’s age-group national teams for slightly under two decades, received her certification in 2020 from the FIVB.
The tactician who now plies her trade with the M-Pesa Foundation Academy was on trial under FIVB Iranian instructor Samira Seif Zadah in September 2020 during a Level I coaching course in Asmara, Eritrea. The resolute 54-year-old tutor who hails from Kimilili, Bungoma County could not hold back her joy on attaining the feat.
“I have always wanted to be at the top and I’m finally here,’’ intimated Mabwi. ‘‘I am so humbled to be appointed a FIVB instructor. The journey has been one mixed bag of experiences. I got both support and undercutting in equal measure but it’s been worth it. I made it!”
Mabwi’s career in volleyball started on a lukewarm note at Friends School Kaimosi Girls during her ‘O’ levels (secondary school) education from 1982 to 1985. She narrates that the school was not big on volleyball, so she concentrated on athletics where she competed in heptathlon, 4x100m relay, 100m hurdles and 200m race.
The mother of three vividly recalls finishing in position 15 at the 1985 National School Games at the Nyayo Stadium in heptathlon. In 1984, she narrates that her gutsy relay team were denied the chance to compete at the nationals despite reigning supreme in the Western Region Games.
During the athletics off season, Mabwi religiously went to watch volleyball every evening, resulting in her teacher of English Wycliffe Gimoi deducing that she was interested in the sport hence giving her a chance to play.
“I did not know it would bring me this far,” said Mabwi, who is fortunate to never have had a life/ career threatening injury.
On transiting to the now-sleeping volleyball giant Lugulu Girls for her ‘A’ levels in 1986 and 1987, Mabwi’s talent in the sport was properly honed and a career ignited. Immediately after school, the ace attacker signed up with Posta Kenya in 1988.
Club Playing Career
With a spiking jump of 289cm and a blocking elevation of 272cm, the outside hitter turned out for four clubs in Kenya and abroad in a playing career that spanned 22 years dotted with several ‘firsts.’
In her 10-year (1988-1997) stint at Posta Kenya (now defunct), Mabwi would be part of the team that made history as the first club in the Sub-Sahara region to win the Africa Club Championship in 1991 in Nairobi. Posta went on to successfully defend their title in 1992.
The 1991 Posta squad became the first Kenyan volleyball side to compete at the World Club Championship in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Thereafter, Mabwi switched allegiance and became one of the first two Kenyans to play professional volleyball. In 1997, the power hitter moved to Tunisian side El Hilal Sportive where she played for two seasons – 1997/98 and 1998/99. She left the country alongside the late Doris Wefwafwa, who turned out for Tunisian University College.
Upon returning home, Mabwi joined Telcom Kenya in 2000. In the ensuing year, the lethal attacker buoyed the then Kenyan giants to their first podium finish at continental stage. Telcom Kenya settled for bronze medal behind winners Kenya Pipeline and runners up Al Ahly Sporting Club of Egypt in Tlemcen, Algeria in 2001.
Mabwi left Telkom in 2008 and joined Blue Triangle VC, doubling-up as a player-coach for one and a half season.
National Team Caps
With 15 national team caps in 12 years, the left attacker was part of the national team that won Kenya’s first gold medal at the third All Africa Games edition in Cairo, Egypt in 1991. North African countries, Algeria and Egypt, had won the first (1978) and second (1987) editions held in Algiers and Nairobi respectively.
The same year at the Cup of Nations, Mabwi featured in the national outfit that would stagger the dominance of Sahara countries in continental volleyball for close to a decade. This gave Kenya their first ever ticket to the World Cup in Japan. After winning the Africa Championships in 1993, Kenya, and Mabwi made her maiden appearance at the World Championships.
Mabwi’s journey to becoming an FIVB instructor got rolling after over two decades of high-octane competitive playing. She started charting new waters in volleyball with local Level One and Two coaching training before seeking international certifications.
Just before her transition to El Hilal Sportive from Posta Kenya in 1997, Mabwi successfully completed FIVB Level I coaching training in Nairobi. She went on to attain FIVB Level II coaching certificate in 2000 in Dar-es-Salaam and in 2019 obtained FIVB Level III in Cairo, Egypt.
She returned to Posta from Blue Triangle in the capacity of tutor from where she sprung to head the National Youth Talent Academy in 2010. This government entity morphed to Kenya Academy of Sports in 2013 in the advent of the Sports Act 2013. Mabwi served in the Academy till 2017, when she moved to M-Pesa Foundation Academy.
“Her account – since she started to play volleyball – indicates to you that she has been intentional of where she wanted to be – at the zenith of coaching,’’ says Mabwi’s contemporary Josp Barasa of Kenya Prisons who has worked as Mabwi’s assistant on three international assignments. ‘‘She has always had direction, perseverance, discipline and an enviable work ethic. Her leadership and decision-making skills are exemplary. She loves volleyball and has done Kenya proud. I salute her.”
Halima Bakari, the head of volleyball programme at the United States International University-Africa and an FIVB Level II coach similarly hailed Mabwi for her passion for the game.
“She is hard-working and does not wait to be given anything on a silver platter,’’ noted Halima. ‘‘She is open to learning, very disciplined and has volunteered so much. She’s a great champion for women and an advocate for upcoming players to balance sports and academics.’’
Besides volleyball, Mabwi holds a diploma in Business Administration from IAT School of Business, a higher diploma in Business Administration and Entrepreneurship from the same college and advanced her studies to earn an undergraduate Degree in Business Administration and Management from St. Paul’s University. At Telkom Kenya, she worked full time in the accounting section as volleyball was part-time for all team members.
Calling More Women
Plying one’s trade in the male dominated field of coaching means there are male colleagues who will readily take the slightest opportunity to elbow a woman out, just as there are those who will offer support. Thankfully for Mabwi, her volleyball playing husband- former Kenya international middle-blocker Sammy Kirongo has been her biggest supporter.
“As a woman, balancing between family, career, play and coaching, is key,’’ Mabwi said. ‘‘One must work extra smart. My husband, who is a former national team coach himself, understands the kind of demands I shoulder and has supported me fully. We have no conflicts.’’
Beyond the family front, Mabwi speaks highly of Elshemerly Sherif, the former president of the Coaches Commission at the African Volleyball Confederation (CAVB), Hitesh Malhotra from the technical and development department at the (FIVB), and instructors Christian Kruger and John Kessel all of whom mentored her through her journey to the pinnacle of volleyball coaching.
It is out of this unwavering support which she received during her journey that Mabwi encourages more women in Kenya, Africa and the world to embrace coaching and aim to be at the top, committing that she is ready to offer them mentorship in their journeys.
“I urge female players to get into coaching and refereeing because playing careers may not span many years,’’ Mabwi advises. ‘‘There are so many things that can push one out of active play. Coaching and refereeing are some of the avenues that players can give back to society, not just in kind, but with the knowledge too.’’
Described by the Confederation of African Volleyball (CAVB) as one of the most prominent outcomes from the training of the trainers’ project which produces young coaching instructors, Mabwi’s parting shot to future women trainee coaches is that they need to be firm, courageous and persistent to achieve their goals.
‘‘With the kind of challenges I encountered,’’ Mabwi, who stands 5feet-eight inches (173cm) tall observed, ‘‘I would have given up long ago, but I pushed harder. I am a coach by passion, not just because I played the game.”