Africa’s best volleyball setter chases Olympic dream

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Emmaculate Nekesa, 20, honed her volleyball skills at Bunjosi Primary School and then Kabuyefwe Secondary in Bungoma County, but made huge strides in the sport at Kwanthanze Secondary in Machakos between 2015 and 2019 
  • Emmaculate plays for KCB Women’s Volleyball Club and was voted the best setter at the Women's African Nations Championship last month in Cameroon
  • Her dream of is to play professional volleyball abroad someday

New Africa volleyball queen Emmaculate Nekesa enjoyed playing netball at Bunjosi Primary School located in Webuye East Constituency in Bungoma County.

But, with her good height (currently 184 centimetres), volleyball teacher Herbert Wafula was convinced she would make a good volleyball player. She kept dodging volleyball because she never loved it. Her first love was netball, the sport her mother, Sharolyne Nangila, played during her days.

Her mum advised her to heed her teacher’s advice, and so she joined the school’s volleyball team, albeit half-heartedly. Now, Emmaculate is on top of the continent. The 20-year-old emerged the best setter at the Women’s African Nations Championship 2023 in Cameroon. This is her volleyball journey.  
Netball was your first love. How long did it take before you settled in volleyball?
In 2015, when I joined Kabuyefwe Secondary School in Bungoma, I met two teachers, Temba and John Wambaya. They worked on my volleyball skills because I had just made the switch from netball. However, most of the work of nurturing my playing technique was done at Kwanthanze Secondary School. 

I don’t know how Kwanthanze volleyball team coach Justin Kigwari spotted me because I transferred to the school in third term of Form One.  Kigwari taught me the basics of volleyball. I started off as a right attacker and also played as a left attacker, and a setter. He told me he could assist me become a good volleyball player, but asked me to choose one position I was comfortable with. 

I told him I felt confident playing as a right attacker, but I don’t know what he saw in me because the next year, he asked me to shift to the setter’s position. My interest in volleyball grew when I was in Form Three. 
The year 2016 was good for me because we won both the national and East Africa Secondary School Games titles in 2017, 2018 and 2019.  

I joined KCB Women’s Volleyball Club in 2020 after finishing my high school studies. We did not compete at the African Club Championships in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but in 2022, we (KCB) went to the Africa Club Championships in Tunisia and returned with the gold medal.
Jane Wacu and Janet Wanja are undoubtedly the best setters Kenya has ever had. They represented the country for over a decade. Do you believe you can fill their shoes?
I know and believe I can reach their level of success, but only if I work hard work and believe in myself. Nothing is impossible with God. I now know how it feels to be called the best and I will not stop working hard to stay on top.

I was honoured to meet Wacu while training for the 2020 Olympics. That’s the only time I managed to train with her. We shared a lot as setters. She taught me a lot of things about the game which I did not know back then because I had just cleared high school. I was still young and was eager to learn more from her. 

Wacu is actually my role model. I used to hear a lot about how good she was since I was in primary school. I knew her when I joined Kwanthanze. I have trained with her once, before the 2020 Olympics held in 2021. We still talk. She offers me a lot of advice on how I can improve my game and know where to set the ball, and how to launch a successful block.

You were voted the best setter at the Women’s African Nations Championship 2023 in Cameroon,how big was that moment for you? 
First, I want to thank God for this achievement. It has not been easy, but he has elevated me to the top. I remember when we were in France for the FIVB Volleyball Challenger Cup 2023 I faced a lot of criticism after we lost 3-1 against Colombia in the quarter-finals. However, I did not take it negatively. I decided to be positive despite the criticism. 

I worked even harder because I also did not want the same thing to happen at the African Nations Championship in Cameroon. I know it is not easy to get an individual award at the continental stage on your first attempt, so I’m so happy and proud of myself.

Before you reach that level, you have to get many things right. You have to be mentally fit, and your level of concentration must be optimum.

I believe my hard work, determination and accuracy as well as match intelligence played a big role in me winning the award. Of course, I wouldn’t have achieved any of it without the support of my fellow players and the technical bench.    
 How are you handling your newfound fame in volleyball?

All I can say is, I’m still work in progress. I’ve been working hard to be the best for a long time since it is my first time to have the best setter’s trophy on the African stage. I still have a lot of trophies to lay my hands on before I can get that fame. I believe in myself. I believe I can be successful.
What challenges have you faced in your career so far?
There was a time when my game output deteriorated to the extent where I began to question myself. I asked myself what I was doing in volleyball, and whether I was just an imposter. In the end I opened up to my parents, team-mates or coach about the challenges I was facing, and they offered me valuable advice.
Can one subsist comfortably on volleyball in Kenya?

I have heard that volleyball pays if you stay focused and work hard. So, I believe it is a matter of putting in the effort and going the extra mile. Personally, volleyball has helped me a lot. As a first-born in a family of seven children, the money I have earned through the sport has helped in paying school fees for my siblings. They look up to me for financial support.
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