On September 8, 2015, the national women’s volleyball team, Malkia Strikers, jetted back into the country from Japan to a heroic welcome. The African Queens had made history by winning two matches at the FIVB World Cup, a first for the Kenyans.
Influential attacker Mercy Moim (then at Kenya Prisons) was sixth at the World Cup in the overall top scorers’ list, while her two teammates at Kenya Prisons, skipper Brackcides Agala and libero Elizabeth Wanyama, also earned plaudits for their performances in the global showpiece.
Kenya Pipeline’s centre Ruth Jepng’etich was seventh in the blockers category, a sign that the nine-time African champions were slowly coming of age.
Jepng’etich’s rare recognition at the World Cup was no fluke. Earlier on in the year, the 30-year-old had been named the best blocker in the African Clubs Championship and African Cup of Nations.
The national women's team had earlier on the same year made history by qualifying for the FIVB World Grand Prix Group 2 in Australia in the series that traversed the globe from June 26 to August 2 playing in Mexico, Egypt and then Australia.
At her prime, and with the Kenya Volleyball Federation National play-offs her next target, things were about to take a tragic turn, and in the most unexpected way.
As everyone broke into song and dance after the team touched down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport - KVF honchos, Sports ministry officials, as well fans and family members of the players - Jepng'etich was enduring pain in her left hip joint but she was still on cloud nine after her exploits in Japan.
The team later headed to Ole Sereni Hotel for a luncheon and she recalls the proceedings pretty well.
"I thought it was one of those minor injuries and the pain would go away. I guess time proved me wrong," the 30-year-old St Stephen Kositany Girls Secondary School alumnus tells me as we settle down in her house at Kenya Pipeline Estate.
Still clad in her training kit, Jepng’etich has just completed her routine mid-morning session.
Volleyball players are doing individual workouts in line with the government’s directive that banned social gatherings in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The idyllic mood in her house a complete contrast of what she has been through over the last five years.
Born on April 9, 1990, in Sergoit Kapkorio village in Uasin Gishu County, Jepng’etich is second last born in a family of six – four boys and two girls.
After the Japan trip, the national team players then joined their respective clubs to prepare for the last leg of the KVF National League ahead of the play-offs.
But Jepng’etich didn't link up with the Kenya Pipeline squad for training at their Embakasi base in Nairobi.
As days passed by, her health deteriorated, and the pain wouldn't just go away.
Kenya Pipeline Company team doctor Stephen Bore and team manager Kassuja Onyonyi rushed Jepng’etich to Nairobi Hospital.
"The tests at the hospital were overwhelming. What would a mere hip joint pain have to do with the many tests they were carrying out? I was later admitted and stayed at the hospital for four months," Jepng'etich, who is currently studying a diploma in Guidance/Counseling and Psychology at Beam International Training Centre, recalls.
"The results finally came back and the doctor broke the news. I had cancer. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer.
“My father, Rodgers Sitienei Ruto, and my sisters were present. I questioned God. I was confused. I had endless questions," she says as she gazes out of the window as she struggles to hold back her emotions.
“As I absorbed the news, I quickly realised that my hope was with the Lord. I turned to the Bible.”
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is an uncommon cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, the disease-fighting network spread throughout the body. In Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, tumors develop from lymphocytes — a type of white blood cell.
As the news of the diagnosis started to spread, Japheth Munala, the then coach at Kenya Pipeline, and David Lung’aho’s assistant in the national team, was heartbroken.
"Naturally as the captain, I had built the team around her. She is a disciplined, humble and hard working player. Here were the play-offs and I didn’t have my most important player. I was not shocked when she was named among the top 10 best blockers because she had worked for it and earned it. She deserved it," Munala, now head coach at KCB women’s volleyball team, says of his former star.
"I was shocked when I learned of the diagnosis. I'm happy she is back. With proper training I believe she can still return to where she was and I wish her all the best."
On the courts, with Jepng’etich missing, Kenya Pipeline defended the 2015 women's league title after hammering eternal rivals Kenya Prisons in a tense final in Mombasa.
Onyonyi says the team did it for their ailing captain who was now beginning her journey into the unknown.
“Kenya Pipeline winning the 2015 KVF title was all the motivation I needed. The victory renewed my hope of wanting to play once again. Not just for myself, but to return the favour for the good deeds Kenya Pipeline Company had done for me.”
"I religiously conducted my six circle and 10 chemotherapy sessions, took the medication I was given and had proper meals and within two months my recovery was on course. The support from KPC which took care of all the bills, my family and teammates is something I will hold close to my heart forever," she recalls.
Onyonyi recollected his thoughts: "Ruth was at her prime. But when we went to receive the team at JKIA, she looked different and I jokingly said to her ‘you didn't feed well in Japan.’ Ruth told me she was not feeling well but quickly reassured me she would be fine. That turned out not be the case."
"Few weeks later, Ruth’s health deteriorated, something was wrong. We rushed her to the hospital and I must sincerely thank the then acting managing director Flora Okoth who made everything available. Ruth received unreserved support from the company and the very good medical cover the company offers its employees came in handy. But it hurts me that no KVF official visited the player in hospital. I'm happy that she has miraculously recovered and is raring to go."
Jepng'etich’s every day motivation was the urge to return to the courts for her club and the national team.
“The urge was amazing, because I knew I still had a lot to offer to my club and the national team. But I had to get clearance from the doctors that all was well and safe for me to return to the courts.”
The player also remembers how she was lost in thoughts at some point as there was no guarantee that she would ever play again. But she didn’t let cancer deter her, and fought every day with renewed vigour and confidence. Her teammates and players from other teams in the league kept her company, along with her family.
"In 2016, I went to India for a scan accompanied by Dr Bore. The tests were done and I was cancer-free. I was then added two more circles to prevent the cancer from reoccurring. Occasionally, I go for routine check-ups at the Nairobi Hospital,” Jepng’etich said.
The news that she had conquered the monster took her back in time. Her next stop? Back to the courts.
Although she was part of the Kenya Pipeline squad that once again defended the league title in 2016, she never played a part in the play-offs.
But for her, being back on the courts, even for practice, was victory that she can never compare to anything.
“For those who believe in the Holy scriptures, Psalms 118:17 tells us ‘I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord'. That is what kept me alive.
“We really wanted to retain the title and when Ruth came back from the hospital, we were super motivated to win it with her again. She wasn’t in her best shape, but her presence meant a lot for us.
We had missed her a lot because she was a key player in the team,” said Kenya Pipeline’s centre Trizah Atuka, who took over the captaincy from Jepng’etich.
At the national team, Jepng’etich had formed a formidable partnership with the indefatigable Brackcides Agala.
"Unlike many players who would not want to ask or be corrected, Ruth was willing to learn. We complimented each other well. She is a good player and I know if she trains well and gets the much-needed support from the coaches, she can still hit the top. She just has to know that the illness was a passing cloud and find herself once again," Agala, the Kenya Prisons captain and the national team beach volleyball player, offers.
Jepng’etich then continued with her comeback and played some matches in the run-up to the 2017 title-winning season, but admits she was not at her best.
"We won the local title and participated in the African Clubs Championship in Tunisia where we settled for the bronze medal. But I didn’t feel as great as I was before cancer hit me.”
She then took a maternity break in 2018. Her daughter Malia Chelagat, recently turned two. “She is my motivation.”
The 30-year-old then made a return in 2019, a year she says was the “worst season” of her entire playing career.
Kenya Pipeline had lost their title in 2018 to Kenya Prisons at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani before Munala and seven players quit the team. Six players followed Munala to KCB and one joined the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF).
Violet Makuto, Noel Murambi, Jemima Siangu, Leonida Kasaya, Truphosa Samoei and Christine Njambi ditched the oilers for the bankers, while Veronica Tanui joined KDF.
A depleted Kenya Pipeline squad, missing influential captain Atuka and her assistant Naomi Too through knee injuries, lost to KCB and Kenya Prisons to eventually finish third.
"That was the worst game I have ever played. Especially losing 3-0 against KCB really hit me hard,” the soft-spoken middle blocker says before adding: “The hard-fought 3-2 win over Peru at the 2015 World Cup still remains my best match.”
“The upcoming players should know that nothing is guaranteed. If you have the opportunity to make a name for yourself now do it and don’t look back. You have to fight every day to be better than you were yesterday. That’s what will take them to the top.”
Jepng’etich now wants to roll back the years and win the league again with her club after the pandemic is contained. The future for her, is now.
OUT OF CURIOSITY
She would easily have picked up athletics because of where she was born and raised but chose the volleyball path out of curiosity.
For those who are familiar with athletics, Uasin Gishu County, is known as the “Home of Champions” thanks to its rich athletics culture.
“I developed an interest in volleyball when I helped father massage his injured leg.”
"Growing up, dad used to play volleyball but not at a professional level and that's how he picked the knee injury and I would massage him frequently. I wanted to know the sport and how it was related to the injury he was nursing,” she says of her father, a retired teacher.
Her mother, Magdalene, is also a high school teacher.
“Although they had a volleyball team at St Stephen’s, it was not the most sought after discipline but I still played it. We went for the Amaco Tournament at the 64 stadium in Eldoret and coach Sammy Kirongo who was then coaching Blue Triangle noticed my talent and said my height can't go to waste," she remembers with nostalgia.
Kirongo is currently attached to Equity men's volleyball team.
"Kirongo showed me the ropes. And that's how my volleyball journey began. I played for Blue Triangle in 2009 and 2010. Before I had a short professional stint with University of Abomay in Benin.
When I returned, I made it to the provisional squad of the national team before making the final cut for the All Africa Games qualifiers that were held in Ethiopia."
Kenya won the qualifiers for the Games that were held in Mozambique in 2011.
“I was overlooked. Agala - who was fresh from playing in Japan and had all the qualities - made the cut alongside Jackline Barasa, Diana Khisa and Roselyne Odhiambo.”
"l looked at the development as a challenge, went back to the drawing board and I must say I was at a better place and performed well with my club Blue Triangle during the next leg of the league.”
She won the best blocker’s award in that event and after the tournament, the then Kenya Pipeline coach Sylvester Kioko approached her with an offer. She jumped at the opportunity and joined the Oilers in 2011.
Seven best blocker’s accolades as well as two Most Valuable Player trophies later, Jepng’etich says it’s been an “awesome journey.”
She gazes at the multiple trophies and medals in her living room, and after a long animated silence, she says “I'm not where I was but I'm glad I'm here.”