What you need to know:
- Jane Wacu needs no introduction to Kenyans, the flamboyant setter having graced our screens for close to two decades now.
- If it is not her tattoos or jewellery that alert you of her presence, then her signature haircut will.
When award-winning Genge artist Major Nameye Khadija, popularly known as Mejja, burst into the local music scene in 2008, music enthusiasts were treated to tales of his early life in Majengo slums, Nyeri.
From his first hit song Jana Kuliendaje to Barua, Furahia Maisha and Naitwa Mejja, he never shies away from documenting his roots.
In Barua, he details his love for his Majengo:
Tangu nikuje Nairobi
Watu wangu wa Majengo sijawasahau
Bro najua nimekosa
Ndio nimeandika hii barua mjue vile nafanya
Hope huko Nyeri bado mnakazana
Kabla niendelee salimia sana matha
He goes ahead to tell the world the slums toughened him that’s how he has been able to survive in life.
While Mejja’s songs touch on the daily lives of most Kenyans, his rise to the top from the slums serves as a constant reminder that we all can be the best in whatever we do no matter where we come from.
On March 24, 1985, while Mejja was six, another star was born in the sprawling Majengo slums in Nyeri.
Jane Wacu needs no introduction to Kenyans, the flamboyant setter having graced our screens for close to two decades now.
If it is not her tattoos or jewellery that alert you of her presence, then her signature haircut will.
At 36, she has won it all – four African Nations Championships titles, four Clubs Championships winners medals, African Games gold, nine Kenya Volleyball Federation National League titles and endless tournaments and personal accolades.
She has been to the FIVB World Cup, World Championships, FIVB World Grand Prix, Africa Games, Cup of Nations, African Clubs Championships and World Clubs Championships and this year, she fulfilled her life-long dream of competing at the Olympics when Kenya made her return to the Summer Games in Tokyo after a 16-year hiatus.
The setter, crazy about music, dancing and her sneakers, tells Nation Sport in an interview at her Kamiti Maximum Prison base that the Wacu we know today wouldn’t be here if it were not for her high school teacher.
“Life was tough in the slums, and we had to survive no matter what. I still go home, I have fond memories of the place, although a lot has changed in the last few years,” she says.
“I never liked volleyball as a kid. I didn’t want to play the sport. All I wanted was to be a footballer. But this changed in the unlikeliest of ways,” she says with a light chuckle.
Tetu Secondary School teacher Mbaka Wang'ondu wanted Wacu to play volleyball, but she didn’t. The push and pull then led them to a challenge with the tutor asking her to register only one block against the bigwigs of volleyball in the country and she would be allowed to quit the sport.
It was in 2003 when a Kenya Volleyball Federation Open tournament was going down at the Kamukunji grounds in Nyeri and teams from the top league were competing.
"My first love was football but the school kept giving me empty promises of forming a football team," Wacu, who also tried her hand in athletics while at DEB Muslim Primary School in Nyeri, says.
"Just block one ball from either Dorcas Ndasaba, Catherine Wanjiru or Violet Barasa(deceased)," Wacu recalls how Wang'ondu challenged her.
“I attended his training sessions half-heartedly, because Wang’ondu had said one block would be my exit route from the sport.”
“He threw a ball my way during training and I tossed it back without a struggle and that's how I was converted into a setter," explains Wacu.
At the tournament, Tetu were pitted against Telkom. “I didn’t know who Ndasaba, Wanjiru and Barasa were but fans knew them very well.”
"They were stars in their own right. As the match went on, the rotation was made; I was on the front court while on the opposite side stood Ndasaba. As she jumped to spike the ball, I blocked her. The cheers from the fans were deafening. We went ahead and lost the match, but I had earned my ‘exit route’ from the sport,” Wacu, now a Kenya Prisons sergeant, remembers with nostalgia.
Little did she know that block would change her life, forever.
Coaches attached to various clubs like Paul Bitok, David Lung'aho and Paul Gitau would come calling.
She didn't have a phone then, so she gave them her sister’s (Ann Wangui) contact.
“I was in form three. I only had one year remaining in school, and I thought, ‘If I have been here for three years and there are no signs of a football team being formed, what will one year change?”
“The then head teacher, Patrick Mugo, told me I had received a call up to the junior national team but advised me to pass it on to concentrate on my education for the remaining year.”
“My grades were not bad. I was good in mathematics and geography but disliked languages.”
After high school in 2004, Kenya Pipeline, KCB and Telkom came calling. She says her choice of joining Pipeline was because they offered her accommodation.
“I don’t know my father and I’m not ready to meet him. I heard that he came looking for me while I was still at Tetu High School. Apparently, he asked to see Jane and we were two Janes in that school. He didn’t know my other name.”
“My mother’s love has kept me going. She was a tailor and looked after all of us (Simon, Peter, Gladys and Ann and I). Life was not easy,” she says, tears now betraying her brave face.
“One evening we returned home and our house had burnt to ashes. Mum had no choice but to take us to upcountry in Karatina to stay with our late grandmother.
“My siblings stayed there for a while but I didn’t last long and I went back to stay with my mother. Mum had looked for a parcel of land near Mau Mau Forest and built a plastic papers-thatched house where we slept on the floor. It was OK because mum took care of me.”
Like any child, Wacu had big dreams. But in between the dreams in the shanties they lived in, she had also to learn how to survive, for the ghetto offers you two choices every day: to live or die.
In Majengo, people were stabbed to death or simply gunned down. Drugs, teenage pregnancies, rape and all the bad things happened there. But she didn’t give up.
It was not long before she turned to drugs. She would then become a delivery girl.
She recalls one incident, in a banana plantation, where someone she knew very well attempted to attack her.
After a lengthy silence, her voice now breaking down, she says: “Maybe I wouldn’t be here today.”
She has a fee balance at Tetu High School, which she says the school management asked her not to clear because she has been a “great ambassador” for the institution.
After joining Pipeline in 2006, life moved fast. But it was not all rosy.
"It was my second time in Nairobi having first come while in primary school to compete in athletics at the Nyayo National Stadium. Lucy Chege, Asha Makuto and Janet Wanja held our hands and helped us settle,” Wacu, who had a brief stint in France with VBC Chamalières, says.
Pipeline had three top setters at the time - Rhoda Liyali, Wanja and Judith Serenge – which made Wacu’s arrival look premature.
All four were now eyeing a slot in the team that was going to feature in the Africa Clubs Championships in Mauritius.
"I knew I wasn't going to make the cut considering I was fresh from school. Bitok (Paul) wanted us to join KCB. Diana Khisa and I met him then Pipeline got wind of the news that we wanted to decamp. Later in the week, Liyali was loaned out to KCB to create room for me. I went to the club championship but I didn't play.”
"We were given Sh80,000 allowance. This was the first time I was seeing that kind of money. I called my mother to inform her of the same but to my surprise, she refused to take the money I had planned to give her as a token of appreciation. I was hurt."
The same year, Wacu was drafted into the national team that was to go to Japan for a month-long training camp.
But old habits die hard. At the Railway Training Institute where Pipeline used to train, there was a women’s football team that was training and Wacu would join them after training.
The team was to go to Cameroon for some tournament for a week and Wacu was now torn between going to Japan or Cameroon.
“Bitok, who was then working under the FIVB attached coach (Sadatoshi Sugawara) from Japan convinced me to go to Japan.”
While most players were on contracts at Pipeline at the time, Kenya Prisons were willing to offer them permanent jobs after they formed a team.
Sylvester Kioko was the coach at Kenya Prisons at the time and he convinced them (Lydia Maiyo, Brackcides Agala, Judith Tarus and Wacu) to decamp.
“I called my mother for advice, but she told me to go for what my heart desired.”
After the Japan tour, Maiyo had secured a deal with one of the Japanese sides but she turned down the offer and Agala took it.
Wacu admits joining Prisons was the best thing that happened in her 16-year playing career.
The 36-year-old remembers how she easily cocked the gun during the practical classes at the Kenya Prisons Staff Training College in Ruiru.
“I had seen and handled the riffle back in the ghetto so it was easy for me. But I didn’t like the training bit that involved a lot of physical workouts. I have chest problems and also the weather was unfavourable. At first, I didn’t like the ‘Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!’ response recruits often used to address their seniors.”
“Kenya Prisons changed me. I can’t really tell what the forces do to people when they join, but there is just some fulfillment.”
For years, Wanja and Wacu – the poster girls of the national women's volleyball team – competed for the starting berth.
Their two clubs, Kenya Prisons and Kenya Pipeline, were fierce rivals who competed for trophies locally and in Africa.
But while most people chose to pit them against each other, Wacu has a different view: “She set the stage for me. While everyone has her style of setting, it has been a healthy competition because we complement each other well."
Her rise to the top was steady but it also came with its fair share of controversies. And Wacu has no kind words for her detractors.
“I think I was unfairly banned by KVF in 2011 during the Africa Games in Mozambique for what was alleged to be misconduct."
"Well, I do drink and love life but as long as my personal life doesn’t affect my game then people should respect it."
Pressed on what her year-long break from volleyball might be about, she says she has “personal stuff” she needs to attend to in Seychelles.
“I will be going to Seychelles to do things I didn’t get time to do while I was playing. My manager (Solanna Camille) has been supportive and I credit the way I now look at things to her. I will not be playing for Anse Royale in Seychelles but I will be moving to another club for sure."
She admires retired Brazilian setter Helia Rogerio de Souza, nicknamed Fofao.
"We are friends with Fofao. She sent me a book titled Toque de Genio - Touch of Genius. She is a legend,” Wacu says of the Brazilian who played in five Summer Olympics (1992, 2008, 1996 and 2000) and retired at 45.
“I wish the script was the same here. We are quick to force players to retire when they are still willing to play."
She finally graced the Summer Games this year after two near-misses in 2012 and 2016.
"We were so close to qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympics. We lost to Egypt in the semi-finals 19-17 in the tie breaker, a match I believe we could have easily won. We were leading in the decisive set and we only needed two points to win but we faltered. It still pains me,” she says, adding: “One of my best events will be all the matches we played in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics although we lost all of them.”
What does the future hold for her? Start a family? Venture into coaching?
“Nimebeba watoto kwa magoti (I am yet to bear children)!!” she says, all smiles. “One year is a long time; I’ll decide what to do.”
But Wacu, who already holds FIVB Level One Coaching Certificate, wants to be a coach.
Mejja might have sent Barua home after settling in Nairobi, but Wacu prefers going to Majengo every time she visits her mother in Nyeri.
“One day, something good will come out of Majengo slums,” she says, her eyes fixed on the countless trophies and medals on her cabinet.