Roseline Odhiambo: The best female Luo volleyballer speaks on her heart condition and love for music

Her illustrious career on the volleyball court was abruptly cut short by a deadly heart condition which has seen her survive three major hear operations. Despite the numerous health challenges punctuated by several trips to the hospital, Roseline Odhiambo, a former National team centre blocker and 2010 and 2012  Africa’s best blocker and server still has a big heart of helping the needy with the little resources she should ordinary be sharing with her two young sons.

Her illustrious career on the volleyball court was abruptly cut short by a deadly heart condition which has seen her survive three major hear operations. Despite the numerous health challenges punctuated by several trips to the hospital, Roseline Odhiambo, a former National team centre blocker and 2010 and 2012  Africa’s best blocker and server still has a big heart of helping the needy with the little resources she should ordinary be sharing with her two young sons.

Odhiambo, the former Kenya Pipeline player and a mother of two runs an annual sports tournament- Kanyanam memorial Cup at her village home every December, bringing together idle youth most of whom she tries to link up with various High schools and negotiate for scholarships, her best way of giving back to the society.

Kenyanstar sat down with the now Community Development student at Africa Nazarene University who played volleyball for only ten years before she was forced into early retirement due to a health related issue, on her journey in volleyball, her music career as well as her fight with a heart condition.

KS: Hallo Roseline? Thank you for welcoming us to your house. Just to begin us off, who is Roseline Odhiambo?
Odhiambo: I like associating myself with my tribe. Roseline is a Luo lady. The only Luo who played for both national team and club during her time as an active player. I was actually the only Luo lady in the entire Kenya Volleyball Federation league. I played for my club, Kenya Pipeline and National team. I joined Pipeline in 2003 directly from School. I was first called to the national team in 2008 until 2012 then abruptly retired  from active volleyball the following year.

I started as a strong player (left attacker) in school but I was converted to a centre player by my club coach because of my good blocks. When I was in school I was the strongest player but when I joined the club, I was told that they needed very strong players on the left, the masculine type which I was not so I had to move to the centre.

KS: How did you get to volleyball considering that you went to a village school in Nyanza where volleyball is not that well spread out?
Odhiambo: I went to Jera Girls. My passion all along,while growing up had been singing. I loved singing. I was a very good singer but i was forced to join volleyball just because of my height. I was very tall and slender otherwise my passion was singing. In fact, my first tournament in volleyball, I was voted the best player in Siaya District. From there on, I was spotted by coach Gilbert Ohanya who happens to come from my place. That’s how I joined Kenya Pipeline.

The national women’s volleyball team during the world cup in Japan

KS: Unlike many Kenyans, you like identifying yourself with your tribe. I remember during your time as an active player, you were the only Luo lady in the entire Kenya Volleyball Federation league. Currently, there are only two. How was life then and what do you think is ailing Nyanza volleyball?
Odhiambo: Being the only Luo lady in the team then wasn’t easy. You know Volleyball is dominated by Luhyas and Kalenjins. They have the best schools in Volleyball and so by default they produce so many players.

Being the only Luo in the team, sometimes you’ll find these groupings sitting together and speaking in their mother tongues and you get to be isolated. Some people even wanted me to be chased because immediately after school, unfortunately, I got a baby, my first son, Eugene. I was  only 19.

When I came back, some of the players felt that it was unfair because they’ve been playing for long while I was a way and some even said that I’ve done something very wrong, an abomination for giving birth.There were also some tribal discrimination of sort from coaches but that never bothered me. Fortunately, I had two good friends, Esther Jepkosgei who loved me right from day one. She was like a mother to me.  At least nowadays I can talk, before; I was a very silent lady, polite and stuff. I have never known how to fight and whenever people would offend or even mock me, Esther was there for me.

And then I had a very rough friend. My best friend is a very rough lady –Asha Makuto. She could even fight other people just because of me.  I passed through so much but I thank God for the two ladies.

KS: Your career, especially at club level was punctuated by a lot of success. What are these achievements?
Odhiambo: Well, for national team, I never won any individual award but we lifted the Africa Nations Championship, finished third in the 2010 All African Games and several world championship qualifiers. I also took part in World Cup in Japan and World Championship in Doha Qatar.?

With the club, I was among the Kenya Pipeline squad that won the club its last Africa Club Championship title in 2005. Actually I made my debut at the Africa Club championship in 2003, when I had just joined Pipeline from high school. The following year (2004), I had my first kid at 19 years, took one year leave then came back the following year and made the team which won the African title in 2005.  Thereafter, I took part in almost all the editions which we honored until I retired in 2013.
I also had a couple of league titles with my last coming in 2011 when we beat Kenya Prisons at Nyayo stadium. That was nostalgic.I was voted the best serves, in Africa (Club Championship) in 2012, best blocker 2010 at the same championship.

Roseline Odhiambo (in light blue) with friends, Esther Jepkosgei, far left,  Ruth Jepngetich, David Lung’aho and Asha Makuto at JKIA during Kenya Pipeline team arrival from Tunisia.

KS: How was life when you got your first kid, at that very early age

Odhiambo: Life was tough. It was very tough. I went through a lot, single-handed. My village had seen me as a role model, I resorted to being indoors most of the time. People didn’t know that I existed. And also at the team, I was the ‘good one’. People took that chance to mock me but my parent were very supportive. I remember when I got the labour pains, I was rushed to the hospital by my dad. In fact, the doctors addressed him as my husband. They thought that we were a couple until I told them that he is my dad. After that I came back to Nairobi with a young baby. I really struggled but I thank God his grace is sufficient, here I am today.

KS: That must have been quiet tough on you. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of your struggle. Your career took a nose dive about seven years later at the prime of your career. Can you just take us through that?
Odhiambo: About my health? Where do I start from? It’s a long story.  It was during the national team assignment. We were training for some championship. In the course of the drill,my heart started beating too fast but I never knew that I had a problem. I never thought it was serous.  So a round 2010 when we were preparing for World Championship in Doha, we had a Japanese coach, Sadatoshi Sugawara. On this day, he took me through a marathon drill and during the break, I took some cold water. Immediately, my heart started pumping. I went and hide somewhere at the back of the court then I started shaking.

The team doctor came where I was and asked if I was okay. There was tension in the team and the Team Doctor at that point was torn between calling Kioni (Waithaka), chairman Kenya Volleyball Federation or the Ambulance?

To me, I never took him seriously because all along, I would get such attacks, take some rest then life continues. But later that day, when the doctor asked me that question, I thought to myself, something must be wrong somewhere. But still, I didn’t give it that much attention.

Later that year, 2010, we were playing in Kisumu (league matches) against Kenya Prisons when I felt something. I stepped on the line and told the doctor that my heart was beating fast and the coach took me off. After some time, I returned to the court. After the match, the team doctor advised me to go see a cardiologist. I did that. I was tested but the result was negative. So they had to implant a reveal device, to try and detect the problem. I was given something like a remote control of which I would ‘press’ once I get the attack to record what is going on in my body.

I then returned to the game and immediately I got the palpitation. But you see, we players, take a lot of things for granted. Players would make fun about my ‘remote’ and we would laugh about it. So we recorded the whole thing and I returned back to the hospital and that’s when the doctors realized that I had a false pathway in my heart. A hole of sort. The doctors told me that that thing couldn’t have just occurred at that time in my life. Maybe it’s something I had lived with only that it was never detected early enough. In fact they were wondering how I managed to play with an ‘open heart’ (laughs). I count myself one of the lucky people.

The doctors recommended for an open heart surgery but our doctor (Dr.  Stephen Bore) was not for the idea. He said I was still very active player and the team needed me so they had to seek for another solution. That’s when I was taken to SanningHil Hospital, in South Africa and they did a minor surgery to fill the false pathway through the groins. It wasn’t open surgery.  The surgery took eight hours. After that I was taken to the High Dependency Unit (HDU) where I stayed for a week. I recovered very fast and came back and resumed training. That year I made the team for Africa Club Championship in Madagascar. When I came back, I got my second born.

Things were just ‘normal’ and one day, while in class, I suffered a mild attack. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know that it was a heart attack. I just felt some unbearable chest pain and I couldn’t walk afterward but again I assumed it. I came back home but I couldn’t walk the following day. That was on a Friday.

The following day, I was taking my kids to the hospital. All of them are asthmatic. I drove to the hospital with the kids in the car. When I got there, I made a phone call to my mum, told her that I was not feeling well. She advised me to go and see a doctor.

I didn’t see the need but sometimes you just do things because you’ve been told by your mother. It is not easy challenging moms. So I did that. They did some random test – body pressure, pulse rate and all that and the next thing I saw was people running up and down in the hospital corridors. I heard them make calls to my Doctor (Dr. Charles Kariuki) that I’m in a very serious condition. Remember I drove to the hospital with kids and my sister in the car.

Within a very short time the doctor arrived and he was comforting me –saying that I was in a very critical condition and that things will be well and all that. He then asked if I had anybody and if I came via public transport. I told him I came driving and he was so surprised.

I was told I was in a very critical condition – my heart rate was very low, below 30 and that I shouldn’t move. I was advised to call someoneto come for the kids. That, my life was in great danger.

I was transferred to Nairobi Hospital and immediately taken to the HDU for a surgery the next Monday. Unfortunately, my blood pressure was very low due to the mild heart attack I suffered the previous week had caused complete heart block. The electrical heart system could not work and so they had to implant a pace maker. With the pace maker, they (doctors) had to do ‘settings’ which I used to go for all the time because I had just got the implant.

I returned home but surprisingly, everything was blurry. By then I used to live with my sisters. I remember telling them not to go to bed that night because I knew I was going to die if I sleep but they thought I was joking. They laughed, stayed with me till late in the night then they retired at some point in the night.

The following day at around midnight, I experienced a breathing problem and I was rushed to the hospital . At this moment, I was still walking but the moment I got to the hospital,my heart stopped beating. The heart rate was around 390. It was literally vibrating.

The problem was with my pace-maker. This thing (Pace-Maker) has two leads: on the upper and lower chambers and it uses a battery. One of the lead was touching the valve and they had to remove it again and another planted.

That year I was in and out of the hospital, but I started improving. Last year I was admitted twice, this year, I haven’t gone to the hospital though I take drugs. I can say that I’ve improved because I know God and I just want to thank him for walking with me.

KS:Tell us more about your love for music. I’m also aware that you are a gospel musician. Is that true?
Odhiambo: The journey to music I think is genetic. My dad was a very great musician. There are so many Catholic songs which were composed by my late dad. In fact in his funeral, almost three quarters of songs which were played were his original compositions. So music, I would say is something in us. I just love singing and I am very religious. I can confess, I’ve never stepped in a club. I hate secular music. The loud secularmusic but interestingly, if you play gospel song – even full blast, I don’t feel anything. I love it.
I released a one album and if you listen to those songs, I used to sing about ‘my heart’. Somebody may think that I sang those songs because I had heart problem or something, the truth is, I wrote those songs way before I was diagnosed with heart problem.
I put a break on music to concentrate with my class work. Music is demanding in terms of time and money but it’s something in me. I intend to take it further when am done with my school course. I will be graduating this October (2017)

KS: You’ve talked about some nerve wrecking incidences like driving yourself to the hospital, sometimes at a very critical state even though you may have not been aware of the gravity of your situation. Does it worry you that maybe someday you may experience the attack in some risk places? And if so, what are some of the safety measures you put in place to get out of danger is case of an attack?

Odhiambo: To be sincere, I live my life one day at time. I live today and tomorrow will take care if itself. What I know is that the Lord is my strength. I’m never worried. I know I will not die soon. In fact I was telling some of my volleyball colleagues that they will die before me (laughs).

At one point my heart rate was below 30 and the doctor told me that I survived it because I was a player. Players naturally have low heart rate. A normal person couldn’t have survived though at one point I knew I was going to die and I was ready. I was imagining myself in a Church, lying in a casket with people coming to view my body. I was imagining being buried.  I think when you’ve gone through a lot; death is the last thing you can fear. But I always believe that as long as you have that faith, you’ll always pull through.But I know the symptoms. When I feel like I’m getting weak or breathing becomes a bit of a problem, I rush to the hospital. By now, I know almost all the danger signs of the heart, the ones to ignore and those to take seriously.
One thing I hate is when people look at me like this sick person. That, I can’t do anything. Okay, there are some tasks I can’t do like lifting heavy stuff but I don’t like it one bit when others sees me as a sick person.

Roseline Odhiambo (9) with members of the national team during the world cup in Japan.

KS: Do you think you’d be alive today if you took up singing and not sports?
Odhiambo:I think this was God’s plan. Sometimes I would say to myself that this could be a punishment from God because he called me to sing and serve him but I took up volleyball. Maybe God is trying to destabilize me so that I stop playing to go back to him. But again maybe this was his plan too, to prolong my life. He took me to volleyball. Sports people have low heart rates and he took me there to give me a low heart rate, something that has helped me survive severe attacks. Sports has really helped me. Naturally, in my family we are big (bodied) but as a sports lady especially a volleyball player, there is recommended weight. You can imagine if I had this condition and above 100?Kg.  If it wasn’t for sports, I think I would have been long gone. My heart rate used to go low, were it not for sports, I don’t think I would have made it. Sport has helped me a lot.

Anytime I am stressed or distressed, I have to spend the night in a hospital but being in the field where I laugh and make jokes with players, I am always very happy and lively. Sport has greatly contributed to my health. Also, I was employed because of volleyball and to afford the medical services at the best hospital it’s purely because of sports. If it were not for volleyball, maybe my dad could have sold some piece of land to take care of my hospital bills which I don’t think would have been enough.

But my life in sports was cut short. This is like a marathon, a race its only that mine was a fault start. I just started the race and I was shown the red card. I had to step out of the track but life has to continue. I’m still going strong.

KS: What made you enroll for a course in Community Development especially at a time when you were not at the best state of health and the future wasn’t that bright for you-health wise?
Odhiambo: (laughs) …Imagine I’ve never know why…studying Community Development has really helped me to grow. I looked at my village and saw so many people who need help. I’ve always wanted to help. If I had the resources, I would be having an orphanage modeled into a sports academy for needy children – as we speak.

There are a lot of people who need help, starting from my village. People like the disabled, the orphans, those living with HIV and the old. So I put myself in that category, the sick and so I said that, because I have a story to tell, I also wanted to encourage the community. You don’t have to be sleeping the whole day just because you are sick. I wanted to encourage guys who are positive that there is life after the infection. HIV is not life sentence. After all, my condition is even worse than AIDS because there you just need to take your drugs unlike me who depends on a battery to survive.

This is why I shopped around for a course that will allow me to serve humanity. Also I considered the fact that I can’t do technical courses like electrical engineering because there are some tasks which I can’t perform. That’s how and why I settled for community development.To serve the vulnerable in the society.

KS: You have a great story and a big heart. Thank you so much for your time.

Odhiambo:You are welcome.

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