David Mosambayi remembers watching jaws drop and eyes widen from those assembled to receive him and the Kenya national kabaddi team at the Ahmedabad airport. The reactions however weren’t for the sight of the tall and muscular players, but for the elegantly dressed woman in a business suit, Laventa Oguta, leading them out while giving them instructions.
The curious eyes reckoned Laventa was a manager. She was in fact the head coach. “I couldn’t understand their Hindi, but their body language was quite funny,” chuckles the Kenya captain. But he recalls Laventa simply walking past the puzzled inquisitors. She had another serious concern on her mind. “We don’t have strong enough left and right covers. They’re not in good rhythm yet,” she laments, a day after the Kenyans beat Poland 54-48. Mosambayi understands why it was thought odd to have a men’s national kabaddi team have a woman as its coach. “People didn’t believe that a lady knows what is needed to groom a strong team in an aggressive sport like this. But madame has done much more for us,” he explains.
Apart from just being the national team coach, the 32-year-old is also the chief scout and president of the Kenya Kabaddi Association. back home, ‘madame’ faces no such questions about her gender when it came to coaching the national team.
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“Society is such that there is a lot of respect for women in Kenya,” Laventa says. “There’s never been a problem for me when it comes to coaching. What matters is how you communicate and what you can do,” she adds.
Furthermore, at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi where the national team held their preparation camp ahead of the World Cup, Laventa holds training sessions for boys and girls every Sunday — on the same makeshift mat. “The girls don’t really have many players to compete with, so they practice against the boys. It’s very good practice for the girls and they’ve become strong players,” she says.
Simultaneously, the game in Kenya has propelled the idea of women being equal to men when it comes to contact sport. Laventa herself though was quite familiar with contact sport. Since 2004, she’s been a part of the Kenyan national rugby team and had even come close to being part of her country’s rugby 7s team that was to travel to Rio for the Olympics, but for an untimely knee injury.
First hand experience
She had first stumbled across the idea of kabaddi by finding the recording of the 2010 Asian Games final between India and Iran – while looking for rugby videos.
Intrigued, she started gathering as much knowledge about the game as she could and started teaching the game. And when the Pro Kabaddi League came up two years later, she could not resist taking the trip to India to watch the game first hand. “The tournament was at the same time as a rugby national camp. But I lied that I had some family issues that I needed to sort out so I could go to India,” she says. Since then, she’s been to all four PKL seasons to help teach the game better.
“She has taught each and every player on the team,” Mosambayi says. Hence when the time came to pick the national coach for the country’s first ever appearance at a kabaddi World Cup, Laventa was the obvious choice.
In a game fuelled by aggression, she serves as a calmly poised coach during training. “There is a lot of respect for me, but these are still men and they have their ego. So if I shout at them, they might get offended,” she says. Yet that hasn’t stopped her from unleashing a flurry of animated gesticulations as she watched her team’s opener.
Mosambayi jokes that she does have a hot-tempered streak and can flare up after persistent errors.
“She can be quite scary then,” he laughs. He rates her as the heart of the team, the one keeping the morale up at all times and engaging in Swahili songs to help lift the mood before matches to help soothe the nerves. Kenya is used to her by now. But the rest of the world is still opening up to the idea of a woman coaching a men’s kabaddi team. Shortly before the World Cup, the England side travelled for an exposure tour to Nairobi to play Levanta’s wards. There Mosambayi saw the first glimpse of the shock that he saw when he landed in India. “They were in awe. Eventually, they came and congratulated her,” he adds.