Shaffie Nalwanja is fast becoming to netball what saliva is to the tongue. The 22-year-old is lanky and lithe, but that is not why netball fans are growing endeared to her – it all about her game.
For a player who had little interest in playing netball until 2015, Nalwanja’s remarkable rise to the top of the game as a defender has left many awed.
Nalwanja only enjoyed watching netball players from her local home court in Najjanankumbi during her Senior Four vacation. She was persuaded to join netball by a coach whom she only remembers by the first name Richard and nickname ‘Mpapiso’.
The coach assured her of free education in her A-Level at Exodus College in Wakiso once she joined netball.
It is the same coach who introduced her to the game basics and ushered her to the defending position that she currently plays in the She Cranes team.
At Exodus College, the towering Nalwanja would take part in the national rally and novices. But she did not win trophies even as the school several finals and lost to the likes of St Mary’s Kitende.
In the goalkeeping position, she used to give Kitende’s Mary Nuba – now playing for England’s Loughborough Lightning – a hard time, earning a call-up to the national team.
She was first invited to the U-21 She Pearls team in 2016 for a Youth World Cup qualifier before making the cut for the 2017 Youth Netball World Cup in Botswana. The challenge with the meteoric rise for then a Senior Six candidate was balancing the game and academics. She had to turn up for the She Pearls a week later than the rest.
“It was a bit hard for me since players had already gelled. It was my first time for an international engagement yet I came late. I felt out of place because I had no friends on the team,” Nalwanja says.
During her Senior Six vacation, Nalwanja played in the Buganda Clan tournament ‘Bika’ for the Emmamba Clan. It’s here that she met a KCCA Netball Club’s Justine Nansubuga, who wooed her to join the club.
Although KCCA is yet to win a league trophy, Nalwanja says they have improved over the years and one of the best clubs in the country.
KCCA finished second in the 2019 Netball League behind NIC. The club also finished second in the 2019 East African Netball Club Championships in Zanzibar.
Like any other netball player, Nalwanja dreams of joining professional ranks to further her talent.
After the Youth World Cup, Nalwanja landed constant invites to the senior national team, the She Cranes. She missed out on the 2018 Commonwealth Games team but did not lose courage.
She took part in the 2019 test series against England Roses and made the reserve team for the Netball World Cup but could not make the grade in a team with Lilian Ajio, Joan Nampungu, Stella Nanfuka and Sylvia Nanyonga.
However, only Nampungu of the defence quartet is active, handing a big chance for Nalwanja and other youthful defenders to replace them.
Nalwanja says being invited and then dropped from the national team is among the disappointing experiences. But she takes the chances with grace knowing she can work hard to make it.
“It is so sickening when they drop you. I have experienced it but I had to check my mistakes,” Nalwanja says.
At the She Cranes team, Nalwanja shared court with her role model Ajio, the former She Cranes assistant captain whom she first met at Namboole stadium playing for Prisons Netball Club at National Novice Championships.
“Ajio is outstanding and has a good command of the game. I admire her talent,” Nalwanja says, adding that Ajio helped her game and also made her feel at home on the She Cranes team.
Her best moment in netball came in 2018 when she represented Uganda at the World University Netball Championship at Makerere University. Uganda won the championship.
“It was very nice winning from the home ground. The final was a tight contest [against South Africa] but we achieved the victory,” Nalwanja reminisces.
Two weeks ago, Nalwanja graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Records and Information Management from Nkumba University.
“I have always had to balance studies with training but I have finally finished my studies and hope to give in more time to netball as we prepare for the test series against South Africa, before I start job hunting,” she said.
Nalwanja at a glance...Family background
Born in Najjanankumbi to Edrisa Musoke and Sarah Nabatanzi, Nalwanja is the first born in a family of two girls and boys. In her free time, she enjoys watching television and reading novels.She accredits her family for being supportive in both her education and netball career.