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Mwathi: From budding boxer to handball coach

By Lynette Matheka
Tuesday, June 16th, 2020
Strathmore’s Maxwel Munero battles for the ball with Kenyatta University’s Elijah Otieno. Photo/PD/RODGERS NDEGWA

Walk to any handball court in Kenya and mention the name Peter Mwathi. It will ring a bell to most if not all.

This is because the national men’s handball team and Strathmore University head coach has touched the lives of many players for the last four decades. 

Born and raised in Nairobi’s Embakasi, Mwathi was an athletic child but loved the arts in his childhood years.

He vividly remembers being the lead act in a popular school play titled ‘The tip off the tongue’ at Muthaiga Primary School. 

Unlike many coaches who are part of the sport they are in from their teenage years, Mwathi never played handball or any ball games for that matter.

He fell in love with the sport much later and boasts a Diploma in handball coaching from the University of Physical Education in Hungary,  an International Olympic Committee (IOC)-accredited institution. 

“I was a boxer in my teenage and early adulthood years,” Mwathi reveals.  Bangla boxing club in Kariobangi and love for his grandmother, who was a nurse at a local dispensary in the area, saw Mwathi gain interest in the sport while in high school. 

Strathmore University coach Peter Mwathi with his players during a past match. Right: Antony Muchiri of Strathmore attempts to score under pressure from Kenneth Kengei of Thika during a past league tie. Photo/PD/RODGERS NDEGWA

“I would visit my grandparents very often in Kariobangi and that is how I found myself into boxing since my friends there were boxers.

After high school, we moved to Thika for a while and I decided to take my boxing a bit more serious. Against my mother’s wishes,  I enlisted to a Thika-based club where we had a Zambian coach.

I played in the intermediate level.  That was, however, short-lived as I moved back to Nairobi and decided to quit boxing because it was making my mother very uncomfortable,” Mwathi says.  

A young Mwathi landed a job at National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB)  in 1990 and his love for sports saw him assemble a women’s netball team that played in tournaments within Nairobi and its environs. 

“In 1991, the current Kenya Handball Federation (KHF)  Secretary General (SG)  Nderitu Gikaria joined NCPB and on seeing the netball team, he convinced me to convert it to handball. 

Most of the ladies in the team had played both sports in school so the transition was seamless. 

A year later,  I travelled to Nakuru where I took my first coaching course attaining a level one coaching certificate and my journey and love for handball began,” adds Mwathi.

Biggest rivals

With no league in place,  the team continued playing in tournaments, with the Nairobi City Council team their biggest rivals in such tournaments. They also played against high school teams. 

Between 1993 and 1994, the structure of the sport began to grow and teams like Black Mamba,  Umeme and Ulinzi got more involved in the tournaments. In 1995, a men’s league was in place with the women’s one beginning not long after.  

“In 1993, I had also assembled a NCPB men’s side with players mostly drawn from schools like Nile Road,  Aga Khan and St Mary’s in Nyeri. 

We introduced a different kind of handball that emphasised on speed and tactics since the young boys could not match the physique of their much older opponents in the other teams.

The girls dominated their league. The men went as far as winning the East and Central Africa  Club Championships in 1996 and 97,” reminisces Mwathi. 

The tactician left the millers in 1997 and was involved in the sport at the national team level. 

He guided the men’s team at the 1998 All Africa games in Egypt as an assistant to the then head coach, the late Francis Luyayi. Mwathi was appointed the women’s team head coach in 1999. 

Greener pastures

“I did not coach the national team at that time as I left for greener pastures, joining the University of Botswana (UB) the same year. 

There, I coached the men’s team for a year. I faced many challenges, top of the list being the lack of a league where we could play. 

Efforts to get other institutions to create interest in the sport were not fruitful and it became increasingly frustrating for both the players and without any meaningful competitions, the team disintegrated,”  Mwathi says.  

His stay at UB lasted close to four years before he returned to Kenya in 2002 where he joined Kenya Polytechnic (now Technical University of Kenya)  as head coach and was later re-appointed the national women’s team tactician. 

He guided the women to the senior East and Central Africa Nations Championship title at Kasarani Stadium in 2005.

Additionally, the team won the Zone Five slot to the 2008 All Africa Games at the qualifiers held in Ethiopia. 

“Being in Algiers for the All Africa Games in 2007 was a big achievement. It was also a big stage for the relatively young team and we were eliminated at the preliminaries.

My biggest accomplishment with the women’s team, however, came in the All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique four years later.

With the experience gained in Algiers, the team, which was largely composed of the same players, played for a seventh place finish,” says the tactician.

His success with the women’s side saw him swap with Jack Ochieng, the latter taking over the women’s team as he took over the men’s side in 2015.

In his first assignment as the men’s coach, Mwathi guided his charges to win the Zone Five Championship. 

“At first, I had doubts on whether the switch would work out. I was used to handling the women’s team but since I had experience at club level, I realised that understanding the players is all I needed to settle with the men’s side.

Matches are won, not by tactics, but by people. If players do things willingly, then success follows,” expressed Mwathi on his experience coaching the 

men’s team.

At club level,  the 55-year-old guided Kenya Polytechnic to their maiden national league title in 2006.

Two years later,  he left to join his current employer Strathmore where he created a formidable side that has been a title contender for several seasons and a force to reckon with in the University League.

“Rapid Results Initiative”

His story in the sport would not be complete without the mention of Jericho Youth Sports Association (JYSA) a project he started in 2006 and registered in 2008.

He was tasked by the Nairobi County ministry of sports to lead a project dubbed “Rapid Results Initiative”  for three months. 

“We were to introduce handball to primary school children as part of a behavioral change project and we chose Jericho as the area of the initiative. 

When the three months were over and the children were hooked to the sport,  I realised the ministry had no continuation plans, despite the success, and our progress with the children was about to go to waste.

I teamed up with a handball enthusiast, John Donga a former colleague at NCPB,  to create JYSA,” says Mwathi. 

He adds: “Many of the current league players were part of JYSA and seven other academies that were born out of JYSA spread across Nairobi’s Eastlands. 

One of the success stories from JYSA was a squad that won the national and East Africa handball school games with Matuu Memorial in 2012.

All those players had been part of JYSA and upon completion of their primary education joined Matuu.”  

However, Mwathi and his partner ran into some challenges involving people who had intentions of exploiting their young players.

Afraid that such would taint their intentions with the sport and the players, Mwathi de-registered JYSA and informed all parents of his decision.  

“I then founded ‘Hand the Ball-Kenya’ alongside Denmark’s professional handballer Lasse Boesen and other partners.

The idea is to work with schools and introduce street handball to young children where they get to learn the basics of the sport and ball handling skills before graduating to traditional handball when they are much older. 

The project is also meant to impart life skills to the children at a young age and help them avoid some societal ills as they grow up,” Mwathi, who is also a KHF coaching instructor,  adds.  

Within ‘Hand the Ball-Kenya’ Mwathi is also running a project dubbed ‘Sports for Education’  where he nurtures young talented handball players in primary school and negotiates for their high school scholarships in schools that have active handball teams or intend to start one.