Not many students in Malawi want to be associated with sports once they have been selected to study at public universities—let alone programmes which are perceived challenging such as at University of Malawi’s College of Medicine (CoM).
What more with stigma and negative perceptions, among other factors, that discourage girls from taking up sports.
But women’s football star Memory Austin defied the odds to stand out as a women football role model.
The Ntopwa Super Queens player, who also played for Ndirande Kings, Bangwe Super Queens and CoM, pursued her dream of becoming a women’s football star alongside her studies.
After her secondary school studies at Milpark Private Secondary School in Mwanza, Memory scored 13 points in the Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations (MSCE) 2010 and was selected to pursue a bachelor’s of Science Physiotherapy (Hons) at CoM.
She graduated in 2016, after five years of studies, and in 2017 she did her internship at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (Qech).
Memory also worked for Beit Cure International before Mwaiwathu Private Hospital where she was engaged as physiotherapy specialist for two years, until February 2019.
This was no mean feat for a young girl who was raised by a single parent—her primary school teacher mother, since six years old—following the death of her father.
Despite being a qualified medical personnel, Memory’s passion for sports has seen her forgo other opportunities to take a full-time job at Football Association of Malawi (FAM) as the first women football development officer, effective May 1 this year.
She said: “I have been sporty since I was a child. I spent most of my time with my brother, who taught me swimming, acrobatics and football, among other sporting disciplines. I was with my brother all the time and as they played football, I was there watching him with his friends.
“It was fascinating that when one of the teams had fewer players, they could ask me to join them to balance the numbers. That’s how I started and I loved it.”
Memory says the decision to study physiology at CoM was influenced by her passion for sports. And her decision to take up a career in sports was not too hard to make.
“Actually, when I was applying to study physiotherapy at CoM, I had to look for a course that accommodated my passion for sports, especially women football. So, I found out that this course [physiotherapy] had to do with sports management.
“It’s exactly what I went through, while doing practicals in my third and fourth-years. We were allocated to assess and treat national team players and those from other leagues. So, sports is also part of what my profession is made up of.”
While at CoM, the soft-spoken personality said she captained the women’s football team from 2013-15 and won two Best Player of the Year awards. She looks up to her mother as her source of inspiration.
“My mother knows that I love sports and she is happy with that. She inspired us [her children] to do what we love. She never stopped us from exploring what is best for us. She supported all of us,” she says.
Her exploits in sports and education has not gone unnoticed as she is one of the mentors for the African Women’s Leadership Programme Region Five.
About her job at FAM, Memory says: “We did interviews last year July. We have been waiting for the results all along. And after so many months, I was happy to get the offer letter.
“People should expect to see women football being run as a profession. Together with the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA), we will put up structures to run the sport professionally, in terms of management.
Her mother, Dorcas Semphani, who now head Neno Primary School, is proud of her daughter’s achievement.
She says: “It’s the wish of every parent to see children achieving their goals and become productive citizens. The feeling is the same with me to see her doing well in her studies and women’s football as well.
“I didn’t find anything strange because she grew up with her brother who was a footballer.”
A number of people have described Memory as a role model and a true servant to women football.
NWFA chairperson Suzgo Ngwira said they have high hopes in Memory to use her experience as a footballer and qualifications to contribute to the development of the sport.
“Finally, we have someone fully committed to driving the women’s football agenda. Expect women football transformation at all levels as we are raising the bar higher. She is a capable woman and needs our support,” she says.
Ngwira also urges women football players to balance their life with education.
“We are proud of Memory [Austin] having pursued her ambition of playing women’s football and graduated at College of Medicine in bachelor’s of science in physiology (Hons).
“What she has achieved is a proof that with focus, other girls can equally succeed in sports as well as education. She is a role model and as an association, we would like to encourage girls to study and take up sports. It is possible with discipline and desire to achieve their goals.”
Ntopwa Super Queens owner and sponsor Isaac ‘Jomo’ Osman says the club is happy for Memory.
He says: “It’s a great achievement for the team to have produced a player who has graduated from College of Medicine and has been employed by FAM.
“She is a model to her teammates. She is already a hard working girl with good behaviour and we are confident she will do a good job.”
Osman also urges his players to emulate Memory’s hard working spirit, saying they should not expect good things to come on a silverplatter.
Memory, 29, comes from Fonda Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chekucheku in Neno.