The triumph and tribulations of Brackcides Agala, Kenyan volleyball’s icon


Kenya Prisons middle blocker Brackcides Agala trains at the Nairobi West Prisons Ground on September 10, 2020.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Since being drafted to the team for 2007 FIVB World Cup, Agala has proudly represented Kenya for 10 years until her untimely exit in 2016 ahead of the Rio Olympic qualifiers.
  • The saying ‘the stone the builder rejected has become the corner stone’ perhaps best explains her journey to captaining the team. She is now a holder of FIVB Level Two coaching certificate
  • KVF’s Most Valuable Player finds joy in team performances rather than individual accolades.
  • Winning 2015 FIVB World Prix Group Three in Australia is one of her biggest moments

It’s hard not to notice Brackcides ‘Blackie’ Agala. Not just because of her imposing physique on the courts or her undying spirit to get better, but her ability to jump over every obstacle thrown at her.

At 36, and playing in one of the toughest team sports, one would expect that Agala is now past her sell-by date. But those who hold this view need to think again.

Brackcides Agala trains at the Nairobi West Prisons Ground on September 10, 2020.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

She is the reigning Kenya Volleyball Federation women’s Most Valuable Player, a feat she achieved as she led Kenya Prisons in successfully retaining  their national league title last year at the Kasarani Indoor Arena.

Identical 3-0 wins saw Prisons brush aside bitter rivals Kenya Pipeline, newcomers Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the star-studded Kenya Commercial Bank, a team built with the aim of dethroning the wardresses.

Moments after she was named the country’s MVP, the national team which would head to camp for the 2020 Olympics qualifiers in Cameroon in January was named. She was missing in the team, much to the shock of the fans who had stayed behind for the awards ceremony.

Challenges in professional sports are an every day battle for athletes, and Agala has formed a habit of making every chance count. Even joining the national team for the first time was by chance.

"Perhaps I would not be a household name were it not for Japanese coach Sadatoshi Sugawara who drafted me into the team for the 2007 FIVB World Cup in Japan," she says.

Kenya Prisons middle blocker Brackcides Agala trains at the Nairobi West Prisons Ground on September 10, 2020.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Agala, an upcoming Kenya Prisons middle blocker, had not been drafted into the provisional squad to the World Cup under the then head coach Abdul Muge and his assistants Sammy Kirongo and David Lung'aho. Sugawara, who had been seconded to the country by FIVB, was the technical advisor.

“We were training for the Africa Clubs Championship at Kasarani while the national team warmed down after their sessions with Sugawara.”

"Unknown to me, Sugawara was watching my drills. Later on, he pulled me aside and told me he was impressed with what he saw and wondered why I was not in the provisional squad for the World Cup. I joined the national team’s training session the following morning at Karura Forest. Of course some players were shocked to see me there but at the end I made my debut.”

For 10 years, Agala donned the national colours with pride, until her untimely exit in 2016 ahead of the Rio Olympic qualifiers.

The national volleyball team skipper Brackcides 'Blackie' Agala (left) leads teammates in celebration after winning the Women's Africa Nations Volleyball Championship final match against Algeria at the Safaricom Indoor Arena on June 20, 2015.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The saying “the stone the builder rejected has become the corner stone” can best explain the start of her journey and ultimate dominance, both as a captain and focal point.

"Many players didn't want to partner me during training drills. It was Dorcas Ndasaba who trained with me and held my hand all through. She showed me the ropes and she is one player I hold in high esteem and admire to date," says Agala.

Little-wonder Ndasaba, Kenya’s volleyball legend, has nothing short of admiration for Agala.

"She is a player who goes for what she wants and always does her stuff without supervision. I would encourage the upcoming players to emulate her," says Ndasaba.

The national women's volleyball team skipper Brackcides 'Blackie' Agala (left) receives the Africa Nations Championships trophy from FIVB President Ary S. Graça (right) and Sports Hassan Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario after their win over Algeria at the Safaricom Indoor Arena on June 20, 2015.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Having competed in the World Cup, coach Sugawara wanted either Lydia Maiyo or Agala – the two youngsters in the team - to remain in Japan.

Fortunately, Maiyo landed a scholarship in the United States and that’s how Agala got the opportunity where she trained with Club Hitachi for three months.

Her training with the Japanese side opened doors as she signed up for Turkish side Pursaklav (2009/2010) and (2014-2016) with French side Chamalieres.

Kenya Prisons middle blocker Brackcides Agala attends a training session at the Nairobi West Prisons Ground on September 10, 2020.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Leadership

As her star rose on the courts and her leadership skills were admired by many, her outspoken nature rubbed some of the Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF) officials the wrong way.

For her, boycotting training and matches was the only language the federation understood when it came to disputes concerning allowances. It is in reality the only language African sports administrators understand best.

It was tough leading the national team, but the 2015 FIVB World Prix Group Three in Australia proved a tough balancing act for Agala.

The country was on the cusp of history after winning round one and two matches in Mexico and Algeria respectively. It was in Canberra City that hell broke loose.

Kenya's volleyball team captain Brackcides Agala (centre), celebrates a point with setter Jane Wacu (left) and attacker Mercy Moim during a past match.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

With their last match against Peru on the cards, and a chance to enter the history books as the only African country to win the FIVB Grand Prix group, there was a problem. The team was owed allowances stretching back to their training camp in Nairobi before they started the journey across the continents.

The players held a meeting and decided to boycott the match if their allowances were not paid. Agala, the captain, had no option but to oblige and lead the team in their not-so-new battle with KVF over unfulfilled promises.

"My mantra has always been the welfare and the rights of the players come first. I knew I was shooting myself on the foot but all that was in good faith. And I'm glad the move bore fruits,” explains Agala, now a FIVB Level Two coach.

Kenya Prisons middle blocker Brackcides Agala trains at the Nairobi West Prisons Ground on September 10, 2020.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Kenya did turn up for the match and won the title after coming from a set down to beat Peru 3-1 (21-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-23), earning the team a promotion to Group Two. Back home, Kenyans celebrated the new milestone in ecstasy. History had been made. But it would claim casualties.

Fast forward, Agala watched in agony as her hopes of competing in the 2016 Olympic Games went up in smoke. KVF axed her alongside her assistant Janet Wanja ahead of the Olympic qualifiers in Cameroon. KVF said the team was in a transition.

Kenya's middle blocker Brackcides Agala attends a training session at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani on June 26, 2019.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

She learned she had been axed from the national team through social media as she was away in France with club Chamalieres alongside teammates Jane Wacu, Evelyne Makuto and Esther Wangeci.

"It shocked that Wacu, Makuto and Wangeci had received air tickets to fly back to Kenya and I hadn’t. I had served the national team for almost a decade and the best thing the federation could have done was to at least drop me with dignity.”

“I’m convinced that the saga in Australia played a part. The transition excuse was for the gallery," adds Agala, who draws inspiration from her four children, Brandon Lujesi (20), Shirleen Museshi (17) Angellah Shirikhwa (15) and Aviella Shiyenzi (two), and her father Richard Khadambi.

Kenya lost to Egypt in the semi-finals of the qualifiers and missed out on the Rio ticket altogether, and Agala bemoans her “golden opportunity” to have made it to the Summer Games.

“I believe my presence could have changed something. It pained me. I cried. It was a case of so close and yet so far." While players are proud of their individual accolades, Agala finds joy in team performances.

In the 2015 World Cup, as Kenya recorded its first ever wins against Algeria and Peru, Agala was ranked fifth as the best digger in the event.

"No particular match stands out for me but winning the FIVB World Grand Prix Group Three was something huge. I will forever cherish the win. Also, from way back, there is something that always comes with matches pitting Prisons against Kenya Pipeline. The stakes are always high."

The decision by Prisons to snap her up from Administration Police in 2006 has certainly paid off huge dividends. Agala led Prisons to five consecutive African Clubs Championship titles from 2008-2013 with one FIVB World Clubs Championship appearance in Switzerland in 2013.

'Great receiver'

She is full of praise for acclaimed coach Lung'aho, who was behind Prisons success at the time.

"She is one player I'm super proud of. She is a middle blocker but she receives very well and that's rare," says Lung'aho, who coached Agala both at the club and national team before moving to the men's Kenya Prisons last year.

National women's volleyball team skipper Brackcides Agala celebrates after a past match.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Experienced middle blocker Diana Khisa, Seychelles-based Wacu, current national women’s team captain Mercy Moim (now with KCB), Makuto, Florence Bosire, Elizabeth Wanyama, Judith Tarus, and Lydia Maiyo formed the back-borne of the Prisons team that conquered them all.

Agala, who runs a beauty shop and restaurant in Ruiru, concedes that Khisa gave her the much-needed competition as she curved her niche.

"She was and still is a worthy competitor. We have a healthy competition in the centre position from way back. We held each other’s hands. Agala is one person who is willing to help if you are ready to learn," says Khisa.

Agala was named Prisons captain in 2007 having returned from Japan, a position she served to 2010.

Khisa, Loice Jepkosgei and Makuto have all served as captains in between the years before again Agala took the armband last year where she guided Prisons to retain the league title.
Prisons won back to back league titles from 2007-2013 before they surrendered the trophy to perennial rivals Kenya Pipeline in 2014.

Won four

Pipeline owned the title for four consecutive seasons before Prisons made amends to win the trophy in 2018 and retained it last season.

"Agala is here to stay. Whether as a player, or in future as coach, she is not leaving the scene just yet. I'm glad she is mentoring upcoming players and I can only wish her the best," Prisons assistant coach Azenga Mavisi says of Agala.

She might not have participated in the Olympics as an indoor player but believes lady luck will smile on her in beach volleyball.

"In all my years of playing, beach volleyball never crossed my mind. Having played few local and international matches last year, it's a sport that I'm willing to dedicate my time to and who knows what the future holds.”

After some deafening silence, she retorts, “But again, I hope no witch hunt will spill into this part of the sport."

Agala, who was paired with Gaudencia Makokha, had qualified for second round of the Tokyo Games qualifiers that were to be held in Nigeria early this year but was cancelled due to coronavirus.

National women's beach volleyball team players Brackcides Agala (left) makes a dig as her teammate Gaudencia Makokha looks on during a training session at Flamingo, Pride Inn Hotel, in Mombasa on February 29, 2020 ahead of the second round Africa Tokyo Olympics qualifiers slated for March 4 to 8 to be held in Abuja, Nigeria.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

She was born and raised in Gamei village, Vihiga County in a family of four children. Her father, Khadambi worked in the country’s Central Bank while the mother, Florence Mwalitsa is retired teacher.

Her early childhood dreams of wanting to be a model and air hostess were banished when she discovered destiny would lead her elsewhere.

She started out as a netball player at Namawanga Secondary School but the games teacher advised me to join volleyball. The school’s team went for the school games and played against former powerhouse Lugulu Girls High School at the Zonal level.

“Although we didn't proceed to the district competition, the Lugulu coach approached me and I joined them because then, they were a force to reckon with together with alongside Mukumu Girls High School.”

She says sport runs in the family.

"My father used to compete in eating competitions while my mother was gymnast. My brother, Tonny Khadambi, plays rugby and so, there was no way I was going to drift away.”

The journey to the top started at KCB Women's Volleyball Team in 2004. She later joined Administration Police (AP) in 2006.

“Luckily for me, the then Prisons coach Sylvester Kioko had watched me play at AP and as they say, the rest is history.”

Agala, now a Kenya Prisons Sergeant, would like to start a sports academy where she can train children.

Would she have done it the other way round if the hands of time would turn back?

“KVF never listened to my side of the story. I was never summoned for disciplinary hearing or anything. Maybe things would be different.”

Agala’s father helped compose the East African Community anthem. Her love for music and dancing must have come from…you know where, for as they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

amakhandia@ke.nationmedia.com