Pipeline volleyball club and the pursuit of glory

For 31 years, Kenya Pipeline women’s volleyball club, the reigning national and seven-time Africa club champions, have navigated the contours of low and high competition, packed a chest full of trophies that says nothing of the devastating defeats they have endured along this road, and now stand on the threshold of yet another tournament they hope will underline their pre-eminence as queens of African volleyball.

Cairo here they come.

Cairo is where they are staging this year’s African women’s club championship from next Wednesday.

Pipeline’s victories in 1995 (in Kenya), 1996 (Nigeria), 1999 (Tunisia), 2001 (Algeria), 2002 (Senegal), 2004 (Senegal), 2005 (Algeria) and a dozen runners-up positions establish them as a giant in the continent. And yet, some of their toughest competitors are compatriots, Kenya Prisons who have themselves won the African championship five times.

If Kenyans liked volleyball the way they like football, or the way Indians like cricket or New Zealanders rugby, Kenya Pipeline women’s volleyball club would be a national icon; some of our best volleyball players have passed through here.

Sadly, some are gone. Who can forget Doris Wefwafwa, Mary Wanabisi, Rosemary Lubembe and coach Peter “Master” Wahome of the early 90s when Pipeline finally established themselves as a national force after the difficult first years of their existence? The big names of the time – equivalent to the Janet Wanjas of today – included Lucy “Fataki” Kamweru, Wanja Kanyi, Alice Kamweru, Esther Anane, Magdeline Achieng, Benta Atieno, Beatrice Kwoba, Mary Ouko, Emily Achieng and Lena Serem.

PLAYERS SCATTERED

The goings and comings of players have seen Pipeline’s players scattered around the world, especially in the US, while others have retired to their employment positions at the company.

Through all these years has been one constant: Waithaka Kioni, long serving chairman of the Kenya Volleyball Federation and a Pipeline man for the last 35 years. It is he who mooted the idea of establishing a volleyball team as a young public relations executive at the company in 1984. He has since risen to Deputy CEO of the company before becoming a director.

He is proceeding on retirement and the Cairo tournament is his swansong as a volleyball official still connected with Kenya Pipeline. Kioni has enough passion for volleyball to make him stand up in a restaurant to demonstrate for you its finer points. You might think he played it as a young man but no, he just happened upon it.

“A friend invited me to Nyeri sometime in 1984 to go to a volleyball tournament there,” he told me. “I went and it was not the same again. You know, there, they are very passionate about the game. If you stage a football match and a volleyball match not far away from each other, the football one will get very few people while the volleyball field will be packed. Anyway, I so liked what I saw that during our next executive meeting at the company, I suggested to the MD, Mr William Mbote, that we start a team. Luckily, he agreed with me and that’s how Pipeline volleyball team was born.”

Chief executives quite often use their power to steer their organisations in the direction of their personal preferences. Sportsmen, like Kenneth Matiba at Kenya Breweries long ago, transform their organisations into sporting powerhouses. Others encourage choirs because they like music while still others make their companies engage in a raft of pursuits such as the environment, education and medical charity.

This is also true in the Armed Forces; excellence in a specific sport often reflects the passions of the commanding officer of that particular unit. It is not unusual for a unit to do well in say boxing but when the CO gets posted elsewhere and his successor doesn’t share the same passion, the sport dies a natural death. Kenya Pipeline volleyball team’s luck has been that successive chief executives have liked the sport. Mr Charles Tonui, the current one, is also a believer in the team.

PREFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

“Over the years,” says retired star Wanja Kanyi, now a senior human resources officer at the company, “the team has acted as a staging platform for international players. Seven out of eight women currently playing and studying in the United States started their careers at KPC. We believe in the technical and professional development of the players and it is for this reason that we never hesitate to release any of the girls whose talent gets noticed internationally.”

Close watchers of the volleyball scene may conclude with good reason that Pipeline are the current champions precisely because their closest rivals, Kenya Prisons, also pursue a similar philosophy. Last season, Prisons lost aces Mercy Moim, Jane Wacu and Brackcides Agala all of whom went to play professional volleyball in Europe. Moim went to Finland while Wacu and Agala are in France. Pipeline exploited the gaps they left to the hilt.

Evidently, Prisons, who are also participating in the Cairo event along with KCB, cannot wait to get back at their compatriots in the race for a slot in the World Club championships in Switzerland next May.

They already have David Lung’aho to design the strategy. Lung’aho, as great a coach as they come, has been a long standing Pipeline tactician before crossing over to the archrivals. He also doubles up as the KVF technical director.

Managerial support at Pipeline goes hand in hand with strategic recruitment. There are schools in Kenya that have a long tradition of producing good quality volleyball players. From western Kenya, Lugulu, Malava and Mukumu Girls Schools have consistently turned out star players. From Central it is Gathunguru Girls and from Eastern it is Kwathanze which was cited for consistent achievement in the Sports Personality of the Year Awards.

PROBLEM WITH SUCCESS

Pipeline scouts pitch tent at the national schools’ ball games tournament each year. The result is that seventy five per cent of their recruits come from these schools.

But the problem with success is that it also masks problems. Volleyball is an indoor sport but in Kenya, there is only one international standard indoor arena, the Safaricom Gymnasium at Kasarani. To train there for one month will cost a team not less than Sh500,000 and that is not all. It is hardly ever available, perennially booked for gospel crusades, graduations and the odd political meeting.

Volleyball players thus train in the open air for most of the time. The climate in an indoor arena is controlled, outside it is not. It is not odd to see a Kenyan player licking his finger and holding it aloft as a way of testing the direction of the wind. It would be laughable were it not so sad. Compare this with Egypt, for example which has 69 indoor arenas!

The players are thus able to return powerful serves while rolling on the floor. Try that on marrum and uneven grass surfaces. That our teams, especially Kenya Pipeline and Kenya Prisons, have done so well against such well-endowed North African sides as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria is a great tribute to their strength, skill and character.

I asked Kioni how it feels to be leaving Kenya Pipeline which he joined in 1980 and the team he started four years later. “It is alright,” he said matter of factly. “Kenya Pipeline women’s volleyball team will be alright. The current CEO supports the team and that is all that matters. As for me, I will never leave volleyball. It is a part time undertaking, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to help our young people grow in their careers. I am happy as I leave.”