Tabitha and Temwa: Sisters driving Malawian football

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Sisters Tabitha and Temwa Chawinga are leading Malawian women's football from the front - literally.

The two have been the shining light for the game and showed their prowess with the national team and now for the first time, they will be foes on the pitch when they play for two different teams in the Chinese Women’s Super League.

Tabitha, the elder of the two Chawingas was influential in Temwa's move to Wuhan FC, though she is yet to make her debut due to the stoppages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tabitha is the destroyer-in-chief while the younger Temwa is the creator. Their rise from the dusty fields of rural Malawi to the pinnacle of women’s football and now starring in China is a remarkable story.

"Sometimes, I would perform so well that some boys would dispute my gender. It was embarrassing at times," Tabitha Chawinga

The two sisters started playing together at the DD Sunshine Academy in Lilongwe, where their football skills were honed.

But football for them was a seed sowed from an early age in their home district of Rumphi where they would sometimes play in men’s teams because of the unavailability of exclusively women teams in the neighbourhood at the time.

It was tough especially in their place of birth where there was a lot of stereotype for women playing the male dominated sport.

“Sometimes, I would perform so well that some boys would dispute my gender. It was embarrassing at times. I have had to surmount lots of challenges and there was nothing I could do about it,” Tabitha said.

Temwa and Tabitha

The duo found their big break when they were signed by local side, DD Sunshine, who were on a scouting mission in Rumphi, over 400-kilometres away from the capital, Lilongwe. The dream partnership flourished at the club and ultimately swung into the national team.

The sisters played together in the Malawi national women's team at the regional COSAFA Women’s Championship held in Zimbabwe, in 2017, where Malawi exited from the group stages.

Since then, they have not looked back.

Tabitha, currently turning out for Chinese side, Jiangsu Suning is the leading scorer for the She-Flames with 20 goals thus far across all competitions while Temwa has 10 goals in as many matches.

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Historic move to Sweden

The two worked their way up from Lilongwe-based DD Sunshine and Tabitha, the third in a family of five earned her breakthrough in 2014, becoming the first Malawian woman to play in Europe after signing for Swedish third-tier side Krokom Dvärsätts.

One of her teammates at DD Sunshine, an American who also doubled working with a Non-Governmental Organization in Malawi, recommended Tabitha to officials of Krokom Dvärsätts upon her relocation to Sweden.

“It wasn’t easy especially during my first few days. The weather was strange and the culture was also different. But I managed to settle down, acclimatize and get down to work because I knew why I was there,” Tabitha explains.

She missed five games as she waited to turn 18, but that did not deter her as she went on to score a massive 39 goals in 14 games.

Her star continued to rise in Sweden and she made a step up signing for second-tier Kvarnsveden, helping them to earn promotion to the elite division with another hot scoring form that saw her hit 43 goals.

Injuries slowed down her maiden top flight experience, but she still managed to score 15 goals. In 2017, the Malawi skipper stepped up to score 25 goals and her performances earned her the spotlight with several European clubs circling for her signature, but she opted for China.

On her way out of Sweden and the club scratching their heads for a replacement, Tabitha recommended her younger sister Temwa, then 21 years old.

“It was not easy as my club bosses were like ‘it is not possible that your sister can be as equally good'. I fought for her to come to Sweden. I challenged them to let her come for trials and after just one trial game, the coach admitted that Temwa is equally good and they signed her,” she revealed.

Tabitha Chawinga

Tabitha announced her presence in China in grand style, winning the Golden Boot award with 17 goals in the 2018 season, seven goals richer than Nigerian Asisat Oshoala, now with Spanish side, Barcelona.

In the 2019 season, she didn’t show signs of slowing down. The forward netted 12 goals in 14 matches to help Suning clinch their first Chinese top flight title since 2009, before going on to win two more titles to complete a domestic treble.

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Temwa takes Sweden by storm

While Tabitha was busy making the headlines in China; Temwa was equally lighting up the scene in Sweden.

The younger Chawinga was among the leading scorers for her Swedish team Kvarnsveden. The last child of the family emerged the second top scorer last season in the Swedish league with 35 goals, including four hat-tricks, from 28 games.

Two seasons and 55 goals later in 57 games, Temwa followed her sister’s trailblazing light and ended up in China, joining Wuhan Jianghan.

Looking back at all she has achieved in the last three years, Temwa is full of praise for Tabitha who has held her hand across every step of the path to success.

“We talk a lot with her and she encourages me all the time to keep working hard. Through her help, I was all ready for my debut with Wuhan but that was halted by COVID-19. All the same, I will be ready when the time comes,” Temwa stated.

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The duo's exploits in China have surely given a massive boost of hope to the development of Malawian women’s football.

Not only have the two sisters been influential on the pitch, but off the pitch, they have acted as role models too. Tabitha has been helping run the affairs of her first club, DD Sunshine club after the owner and proprietor David Dube suffered ill health that has incapacitated him.

Dube played a pivotal role in helping Tabitha secure her first move to Sweden, one that opened doors for her and the sister. Coincidentally in that same year, 2014, Dube, a pioneer of women’s football in Malawi suffered a stroke.

The club, Tabitha and Temwa’s first top flight club was staring at the danger of running into oblivion and the former took it upon herself to pick it up while on holiday back home.

“I pay for rentals, ground fees, school feels, school uniforms, allowances and food for the players. I have been doing this since 2014. In fact, I also sponsor DD Sunshine boys’ team. Together with the coach [Andrew Chikhosi], we have also revived the girls’ developmental team, so in total, I sponsor three teams,” Tabitha said.

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She adds: “It is not enough. It is hard considering that I also have to provide for my family back home but I am determined to do this because DD Sunshine means everything to me.

“There were times I could solicit for as little as 2,000 Malawi Kwacha (USD 2.00) to buy a pack of flour and some dry fish so that the girls could have something to eat. It was a struggle because that time I was not financially sound. I used to sacrifice every penny for the team.”

Tabitha now hopes she can secure more sponsors to help her keep the club she describes as her heritage afloat.

The club’s administrator James Chavula, while speaking to Malawi’s Nation newspaper disclosed that Tabitha has been a pillar for the club.

"She is my role model because she has proven that with hard work, we can also achieve our goals" Nasir Amidu, DD Sunshine player

“She is transforming the lives of the players and, by so doing, she has become an inspiration to the girls. They all look up to her and they work extremely hard so that they can be like her someday,” he said.

One of the beneficiaries of Tabitha's kind gesture to DD Sunshine, Nasir Amidu, has paid glowing tribute to the China-based forward for fueling the dreams of many young players.

“Tabitha does everything for us. From paying our school fees, accommodation and food as well as upkeep. She is my role model because she has proven that with hard work, we can also achieve our goals. She always tells us that it is about self-belief and dedication,” Amidu observed.