It is half an hour after volleyball practice and Columbia College’s Southwell Arena is quiet. It will be a different building in 24 hours when fans crowd in to watch the Cougars open the NAIA Region V Tournament.
For now, though, all of the blue plastic seats that surround the court are folded back. There is no music blaring from the speaker system. It is quiet.
Jacqueline Makokha, an outside hitter and the American Midwest Conference’s Most Valuable Player, sits on a step between two rows of seats, emptying sugar packets into her coffee. It has been a long day for her, and it isn’t nearly over. She still has a shift at work.
There is a sad expression on her face, but it isn’t because she is headed to work. She is talking about her 4-year-old son, Bobby, who lives back home in Makokha’s native Kenya with her father-in-law.
“Last time I talked to him, my care-keeper, she said he can count from A to K and one to 10,” she said. “But she told me he has improved more so I don’t know how further more he can count from.”
It has been 11 months since Makokha, 30, has seen her son. She has not been able to obtain a visa for Bobby to come and join her in America while she studies to be a nurse.
“They say that when he comes here to join me that maybe I might not go back home,” Makokha said.
No. 11 Columbia College (36-6) looks to capture its fifth consecutive Region V Tournament title this weekend. The Cougars play at 8 tonight against Missouri Baptist. A win would put Columbia College in the championship match at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Missouri Baptist (18-6) defeated Benedictine 3-2 on Tuesday in its quarterfinal match to advance. The Cougars had a first-round bye.
This will be the teams’ second meeting in less than a week. The Cougars swept last Saturday’s AMC championship match.
No. 22 Central Methodist (29-7) and Lindenwood (32-12) play in Friday’s other semifinal match at 6 p.m.
Makokha, whose husband attends college in Texas, is not the only Cougar going through the pain of having loved ones far away. Teammate Doris Wefwafwa, 28, also a native Kenyan, left her fiancé at home to join the Cougars this season. Wefwafwa says having Makokha here, though, has made the pain of being apart from family a little bit easier.
“She’s like a sister to me,” she said. “We are like family.”
The two had been friends long before Wefwafwa arrived in August. They both attended the same high school, Lugulu in Bungoma District, and have played on various club and national teams together since. Both were members of the Kenyan Olympic team at the 2000 games in Sydney.
“My home area and Jacqueline’s home area (in Kenya),it’s less than 20 minutes drive,” Wefwafwa said. “We are not new here to each other.”
Makokha spent two years at Lee College (Texas) before arriving in Columbia in 2001. Cougars coach Melinda Wrye-Washington first saw her playing at the National Junior College tournament and called her at the encouragment of Edna Chumo, who had played with Makokha in Kenya. Chumo plays for Central Methodist.
Wrye-Washington had been recruiting Wefwafwa since last December, but the two fell out of contact. Makokha helped Wrye-Washington re-establish contact.
Wrye-Washington’s recruiting efforts have paid off. Makokha won AMC Newcomer of the Year, leading the conference in digs per game (5.4) during the regular season. Wefwafwa also finished tied for second in kills per game (4.3).
Though she had few problems adjusting on the court, Wefwafwa said adjusting to a new culture was difficult.
“The coach, the food, everything, even the water that you shower in is way different from what it was at home,”she said. “When I came, everything I looked at was really quite different, and I ended up just only eating only oranges and apples.”
In October, Wefwafwa caught the flu, lost more than 20 pounds and missed seven matches. Makokha left glasses of water by Wefwafwa’s bed each day.
Wefwafwa and Makokha divide most of their time between athletics and schoolwork, and the limited free time they have is usually spent relaxing at home and watching tapes of old matches or cleaning.
“I think naturally we are not outgoing to other activities like going out,” Wefwafwa said.
Makokha stays in touch with her son over the phone. She says she knows what she is doing in Columbia will help her family in the future, but for now, it’s hard. She carries a picture of Bobby in her purse.
“Sometimes when I miss him I just go in there, I look at it and say, ‘God has to take care of him, whenever he is with me and also (not with me),’” she said. “I have to keep fighting.”
Although Wefwafwa doesn’t seem sure yet if she’d like to stay in the United States after college, Makokha seems definite she won’t.
“Home is always the best,” she said. “I have to go back home.”