He is soft spoken. A man of few words but with an overflowing pot of humor. Japheth Munala, the Kenya Pipeline head coach is a man on a mission; to transform the Kenya Volleyball scene. His humility and dedication to his work has seen him record great success with both his club, Kenya Pipeline with whom he has lifted three consecutive league titles. He also assisted the national women's team, christened Malkia Strikers to their first international title when Kenya wrote history thousands of kilometers away by lifting the FIVB World Grand Prix in Australia in 2015. Munala also uses his free time to give back to the society. He shares his skills with grassroots coaches and upcoming volleyball players in High Schools. His effort has since been rewarded when he guided three different Schools to both the national and regional School stages.
K.S: Thank you coach for your time. Just walk us through your first contact with Volleyball.
Munala: I started playing volleyball while in School. Musingu Boys High School. I feared going for cross country and i would hide among volleyball players. The captain saw my height and convinced me to stop running and concentrate on volleyball. I excelled so fast and before the end of that year i was in the starting lineup. While in form four, i took the team to the nationals. That's how I begun playing volleyball.
K.S: So how was the transition after high school?
Munala: That was in Form Four. I went back for Form Five and Six in the same School. While playing for the School, I joined a club, MOW of Kakamega. I played for both the school team and Club and when I cleared form Six, I moved to MOW on full basis and stayed with them for three months. I then switched to Kenya Ports Tele Communication (KPTC) in 1988. That was a branch volleyball club of KPTC. After one year in Kakamega, I was transfered to the headquarters in Nairobi where the senior team was based. I remember they were the national champions for very many years. They saw me play in Kakamega then transfered me to the bigger club, Posta men where I played until I retired.
K.S: What was your most memorable moment as a player and what are some of the achievement you can point out during your time at Posta?
Munala: The most memorable day was when I played for Posta for the first time. We had good players in the team then and It wasn't easy for anyone especially a new and upcoming player to get a slot in the starting line up. When I got the starting role, I never looked back. I held that position (left attacker), up until I retired from the team in 2007. Unfortunately I never played for the national team. I was called several times but I never made it to the final squad. We won the national title with Posta severally. We were the national champions for more than 10 years in a row. We also won KICOSO games and we finished third at the Africa Club championships, the first time a Kenyan team finished in the medal bracket at the continental stage. Only Kenya Prisons (men) has done better than that when they finished second in 2013.
K.S: You must have had some bad luck there with the national team. Sorry about that. So then how did you transit from the court to the bench?
Munala: While still playing, I went for a coaching course in 1997. I was still very active as a player but i needed to have the certificate with me. So i went for Level 1- coaching course and got the necessary papers. I continued playing until 2005 when I started doubling up as a coach-player, still with Telecom. I actually started as a player-trainer then coach-player. After I got retired from Posta, I took coaching as a career in 2008. I started with the Telkom in division two and took them to division one. I later left Telkom for Kenya Commercial Bank as assistant coach to Paul Bitok. When he (Bitok) left for Rwanda, I took over the team as the head coach. We won the league that year with KCB, finished second in Africa (Club Championship). In 2011, Pipeline saw me and that's where I am to-date.
K.S: What are some of the challenges facing the growth of women's volleyball in Kenya?
Munala: When we joined volleyball, i would say there was shortage of players but some of us took up the challenge as coaches to go back to Schools and nurture players. Currently, there are a lot of players coming through from Schools. The only major challenge is the few number of clubs which is not enough to absorb the growing number of talent coming out of High School. For a very long time Schools have played the role of feeder to various clubs in this country. What I can say is that there is no shortage of players now but we have a shortage of the number of clubs, especially for women.
My wish and appeal is to corporate bodies, the private firms to come in to Volleyball. We should have more institutional clubs which should be able to employ these players so that we can have transition from Schools to club volleyball. Otherwise the four clubs in the women's top division are not enough to take in the big number of players coming from School. I would challenge corporate institutions to form clubs that will absorb all these talents being wasted.
K.S: Talking about Schools, we've seen you working very closely with quite a number of institutions. Why so and do you do it for monetary gain?
Munala: Not at all. Money is not the driving factor. I started with Malava Girls when they had absolutely no impact in School volleyball. There were only two schools then - Lugulu Girls and Mukumu. Those two schools were very good in Volleyball. So Malava came nowhere near them. I started with Form Ones and by the time they got to Form Two, they were the champions in Western Province. Until the time I left, they were the champions East Africa.
Then I went to Kwanthanze Secondary in Machakos County. In my first year with Kwanthanze, they finished fifth. The second year they came third and the third year they finished in position one, both at Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association (KSSSA) and East Africa School games. After Kwanthanze I went to Soweto Secondary. Soweto is a very small School from Kibera slums. Not known in Volleyball but after one year stay with them, Soweto became the Nairobi and Metropolitan regional champions. Then they finished second in both the national and East Africa. So those are the achievement I can point out at school level. I can say that the majority of young players in Kenya Volleyball today, about 70 percent have passed through my hands as a coach of schools. I've seen them grow. In fact, majority of them are now coming up to the national team ranks. This is an initiative that every coach in Kenya volleyball should take up. That way, we may not lack volleyball players in future.
K.S: Coach thanks so much for doing a lot to bring up young layers. Kenya has dominated continental volleyball for the last two decades. Unfortunately, that is not the same case when we cross over to the international stage. As the national team coach, what would you say is the biggest difference between Kenyan Volleyball and the rest of the world.
Munala: The biggest challenge I would say is lack of basic skills from our players. That has been the biggest undoing whenever we play outside the continent. But if all coaches would go back to the grassroots to start teaching these basics straight away from School, I think we'll go far at the international stage. But I am thankful that we've made some progress in the last few years and made impact at the international level.
K.S: We've seen your success with both the national team, at Club and even School level, as a coach. Besides your achievement with Schools, you have won the national title three times in a row with Kenya Pipeline and several accolades with Malkia Strikers. Unfortunately, during your time as a player you were not this successful. How did you turn it around, to be this successful on the bench?
Munala: As a coach you have to be very committed. You have to instill discipline in players, whether it's at School or club level then push it. Becoming the national coach has given me a lot of experience. I've traveled the world, I have seen how other players are playing and how other coaches are conducting themselves and I have learnt a lot in terms of drills to give to the players.
What worries me is the lack of support Sports receives from the government. For example, our main undoing at the international stage is the poor reception. About 99 percent of our league matches are played outside. This shouldn't be the case. The way you receive the ball in the gym is totally different from the way you receive the ball in a windy environment outside. Outside there, volleyball is played in the gym. In Kenya we only have one standard gym for volleyball which is shared by every body, including politicians. I thought the county government would help us by constructing more Gyms. If only the county government would construct at least 20 gymnasium for indoor sports, then we would be far. I don't know what happened along the way and we are still waiting for somebody to come to our rescue (laughter)
K.S: What is your obsession with young players?
Munala: The way to go is to give young players a chance. For continuity of the sport, you have to at least have that generation, the old and young. Every coach should strike to have at least two or three young players in his or her team at any given time. If you rely solely on old players you may find yourself in a very awkward situation. Old players will 'cheat' you that they are on form but when they step on the field, they tire very fast.
K.S: What are some of the challenges you face as a coach specifically as someone who works with female players?
Munala: Very difficult. Coaching women is very difficult. You have to understand each and everyone of them. You have to understand their mood especially when they are on their menses. But the most important bit is, as a coach you should never date a player. The moment you do that they will stop listening to you and that's the last thing you want as a coach. There is also the issue of pregnancy coming in when you least expect it. Your best player leaves for maternity and you have to devise ways of filling the gap. These are the issues we battle with as women's team coaches. For example my employer will not understand why i lost a match because of the absence of one or two players. But the truth is, the team can be completely weakened due to unavailability of that one player. Its never easy coaching women.
K.S: Back to your achievements if you don't mind. We've seen you dominate the local volleyball scene for the last three years with Kenya Pipeline, something that usually guarantees you an automatic ticket to the Africa Club championship. This title has eluded you for the last five years. Currently you are preparing for that very event. Is this the right time for Pipeline to win their first continental title in over a decade?
Munala: If there is any stressful moment for a coach, it is during club championship and national playoff. It gives me sleepless nights. Long nights because you don't know in which pool you are going to land. Whether it is going to be friendly to you or not. Club Championships are a headache to any coach. It has eluded me several times since 2011 and now we are goin to 2017. I hope God will give it to me this time round. I've done my best, we've tried everything and I hope we are going to do well in Tunisia.
K.S: Finally, as a coach, what do you consider when signing a player, height or skills? And is Volleyball all about height?
Munala: What I can say is that height is an added advantage in Volleyball. But again, you can be tall but lack the jump. Volleyball is nothing but to have a powerful jump. If you have a powerful jump then height is an advantage, even better for a player. You should have a moderate height or above medium. But if you are tall and have the jump, then that's the ideal player every coach will be looking to have in his team.
K.S: Thanks so much coach for your time.
The interview was conducted at the Kasarani indoor Arena during Kenya Pipeline training ahead of the 2017 Africa club championship.