Four African Women’s Cup of Nations titles, four African Games gold medals and the historic FIVB Grand Prix Group 3 victory plus other countless achievements are enough to make any federation chief content with his or her accomplishments.
But if you thought winning alone is enough to quench the thirst of all human beings, then you have not met him yet.
“It’s something that bothers me and will bother me for the rest of my life. It goes without saying that we have good players across the nation but it’s sad that they haven’t gotten the goodwill from sponsors. But I hope someday it will pick up,” Kenya Volleyball Federation president Waithaka Kioni tells me with an animated gesture as we settle down for the interview at his office in Muthaiga, Nairobi.
It’s the failure to lift men’s volleyball team – both beach and indoor volleyball – to the great heights their women’s counterparts have hit that is haunting the veteran administrator.
Way back in the 19th century, when civilisation was still taking shape in the western world, an American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said: “Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” Thoreau probably didn’t know that his words would be relevant in the 21st century and probably for the rest of the years which the human race will exist.
Very few people in volleyball are held in high regard as Kioni, who also doubles up as the CAVB vice president and holds the same position at the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (Noc-K). For a man who has been around and part of the administration of the sport for over three decades, where he has witnessed and overseen supreme highs and lows, it is hard to believe he is still full of unassuming vigour.
“I have two years to the completion of my second term. But when that time comes, I will leave office with my head held high,” the 68-year-old says.
Kioni is all smiles, and rightfully so. The dust is yet to settle since the national women’s volleyball team, the Malkia Strikers, sealed the sole ticket reserved for Africa at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Kenya emerged top in the qualifiers played in a round robin format, beating Egypt, Botswana, hosts and arch-rivals Cameroon and Nigeria to the ticket.
For Kioni, ending a 16-year wait for a return to the Summer Games is a big gift to him as he prepares for his swansong from office. But there is more.
The veteran administrator is Team Kenya’s Chef De Mission to the 2020 Tokyo Games, and his wish was to lead the country’s delegation to Japan with his team in tow.
He has been around as the African Queens made it to the Olympics in 2000 (Sydney), 2004 (Athens) and now Tokyo, but his insatiable quest for more glory remains unquestionable.
“Malkia Strikers winning the Grand Prix put Kenya on another level and since then people have associated Kenya not only with athletics and rugby but volleyball as well,” he says as he reflects on his time in office.
While the women’s team has over the years wined and dined with the minnow and mighty in equal measure across the World, the men’s team has been underwhelming.
Last August, as the women’s volleyball team celebrated retaining the African Games gold in Morocco and their beach volleyball side took silver, the men’s teams were yet again missing from the event.
Not that the men’s team has not had its share of opportunities, but Kioni blames their lack of success to poor facilitation. The team featured in the 2018 FIVB Volleyball World Championships qualifiers in Rwanda but faltered.
And it’s a regret that has been weighing the KVF chief down for years.
Interestingly, Kioni didn’t even play volleyball in his formative years. He was a footballer and that’s how he got into the sports world.
But that’s just one of the many hats the father of four wears. A few years after graduating from the University of Nairobi where he studied Public Administration, Kioni joined the Standard Group in 1978/79 but quit for the Kenya Pipeline Company in 1980 where he served in the public relations office. He then featured for the Kenya Pipeline football team in 1986 in the National League before the team was dissolved years later with the now retired national team player-turned-politician McDonald Mariga having featured for the side at some point.
How did he find himself in volleyball? “I was invited to Nyeri by a friend sometimes in 1984 to go for a volleyball tournament there,” he recalls with a light chuckle, eyes firmly on some of the trophies on the shelves.
“It was never the same again after that. You know, they are very passionate about the game. If you stage a football 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.”
“I fell in love with the scenes and during our next executive meeting at the company, I suggested to the Kenya Pipeline Managing Director MD, William Mbote, that we start a team. Luckily, he agreed and that’s how the Kenya Pipeline women’s volleyball team was born,” said Kioni.
While the team didn’t perform well in the early stages, they slowly found their way to the top. Now a powerhouse, Pipeline have won seven African Club Championships with victories in 1995 (Kenya), 1996 (Nigeria), 1999 (Tunisia), 2001 (Algeria), 2002 (Senegal), 2004 (Senegal), 2005 (Algeria) and a dozen runners-up positions including the 2019 event that was held in Egypt where the oilers emerged third.
With the steady rise of the Kenya Pipeline club that had churned out the then most sought after players in the country including the late Doris Wefwafwa, Lucy “Fataki” Kamweru, Wanja Kanyi, Esther Enane among others, Kioni vied for the Kenya Volleyball Association (KVA) Nairobi branch vice chairmanship in 1990 and was elected. Four years later, he would ascent to the chairmanship at the branch level.
Kioni scouted Enane, 19, who was then playing for Kenya Posta and studying at the Kenyatta University alongside Kanyi who was studying at the University of Nairobi before he influenced the duo’s move to the Oilers.
“Kioni is my mentor. I wouldn’t be where I’m today if it was not for him. He is a go getter, focused and passionately decisive. He is also a strict disciplinarian. I’m not surprised where the sport is currently because under his watch volleyball has grown in leaps and bounds,” said Enane, a former left attacker who is now in the management at Kenya Pipeline Company.
“I hope that whoever will take over from Kioni will be up to the task. He/she might not fit perfectly in Kioni’s shoes but at least something close to that.”
An avid reader who enjoys swimming, Kioni threw his hat in the ring for the KVA national chairmanship in 1998 he was elected before the federation changed its name to Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF) in 2000.
But it was after the 2000 Sydney Olympics that Kioni threw in the towel and never completed his term before he again recaptured the seat in 2006 where he has been at the helm to date.
He remembers the events that led to his resignation in 2000: “As a federation we had a partnership with Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) where they had given us coach Sadatoshi Sugawara. He was to be the head coach of the women’s team. But it was unfortunate that while sending names of the team to Sydney, the then secretary Jacob Owiti assigned Gilbert Ohanya as the head coach rather than Sugawara. That didn’t go down well with the Japanese embassy and I had no choice but resign because they felt disrespected.”
Kioni has been a vice president at CAVB for eight years now, but little has been done for the growth of the sport in all African countries. His response?
“It is true there is nothing much to write home about as far as countries benefiting from the CAVB is concerned and it’s sad,” he says.
The body gives 20 balls (indoor), 20 (outdoor) and 10 (beach balls) and nets to the respective federations. But Kioni believes the balls should be awarded according to performance of the nations in each category of the sport.
“Countries that perform well in beach volleyball should be awarded 50 beach balls, while nations that perform well in the indoor should get the same number of the balls but not to split them in the name of giving out balls.”
Now the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (Noc-K) deputy president, Kioni remains optimistic that the country’s talent tap will not run dry.
“It’s unfortunate we don’t have the required infrastructure with only Kasarani’s indoor arena the only standardised facility.”
“Thanks to the Kenya Secondary School Games, talents keep on emerging for instance Sharon Chepchumba – who has become a joy to watch having cleared at Kwanthanze in 2017. With proper support from the government we can have youth development centres across the nation where the clubs can tap the talent.”
On his preferred successor once he exits office? “Democracy should take its course but it’s too early to start talking about the elections.”
For Kioni now, the remaining time in office presents an opportunity to right the wrongs as he heads into retirement where he hopes he can finally take some time off the busy schedule to concentrate on managing two of his sons who are rally drivers.
Maybe American college basketball coach Abe Lemons was right after all: “The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off.”
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