In the midst of all the gloom, doom, and cynicism this week, a story emerged to inspire the most hardened heart. Born in one of the world’s worse slums, Katwe, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to unimaginable hardship and poverty, Phiona Mutesi has emerged a rising star in the chess world. Her life is the subject of a book and Disney has a movie about her in the works.
The illiterate 15 year old (or maybe 14 or 16 – she doesn’t know when she was born) lost her father to Aids at a very young age and had to leave school because her family could not afford it. Her days were dominated by the search for food and a daily, early morning, two-hour long walk to haul a jug of clean water back through streets of Katwe, where the sewage from central Kampala flowed.
Sometimes living on the streets and frequently dogged by hunger, Phiona scrounged for food for herself and her family. One day she stumbled on a place that offered a bowl of porridge to any child who was willing to learn – chess, of all things! A missionary and refugee of the civil war in Uganda, Robert Katende, ran the chess program in the slums of Katwe on the belief that it offered children discipline and the chance to think and endure challenges. That was in 2002 and Katende recognized Phiona’s talent from the beginning.
But like everything else in Phiona’s life, learning chess was hard. She had to walk roughly four miles a day to be in the chess program and get her treasured bowl of porridge. Being a girl made it doubly hard, since many did not approve of girls learning chess. Girls in Uganda are considered inferior to boys. Others saw chess as a white man’s game and inappropriate for the children of Uganda.
Soon Phiona began beating the other children at chess. She went on to win Uganda’s chess championship, the first female to do so, and began representing her country in tournaments in other parts of the world.
This fall, a book about Phiona hit the market: THE QUEEN OF KATWE by Tim Crothers. Disney has optioned the book and begun work on the movie, THE QUEEN OF KATWE.
“Chess gave me hope,” says Phiona Mutesi. And much more than hope. Phiona is back in school learning to read and write, financed by a grant. She is traveling to places around the world she never dreamed existed. “I feel happy,” she says simply.