By Paul Ndiho
December 24th, 2012
A 15-year old Ugandan girl, who is relatively unknown at home, is making international headlines playing a strategic board game. Phiona Mutesi is an award-winning World Chess champion, born in Katwe, a slum in the heart of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Her story is inspiring millions of people.
Despite repeated hardships, Phiona Mutesi’s ability to play chees is amazing– and her journey to international stardom is remarkable. Her big break seems to have happened when Tim Crothers, a renowned author and former writer for the magazine, Sports Illustrated, wrote a book title “The Queen of Katwe” chronicling Phiona life and an article that has been nominated for that 2012 National Magazine Award.
Phiona was born and raised in this broken-down shack with her mother and three siblings and struggled to find a single meal to eat each day. She’s been out of school most of her life because her mother cannot afford it, and now she is just learning to read and write. Tim Crothers who brings Mutesi’s life to light, says she is one of the best chess players in the world and that her remarkable story is one in a thousand.
“This story is about a 14-year-old girl in the slum in Uganda who has through unbelievable happenstance stumbled upon the game of chess. And with the help of a man who is as close to a saint as any man I’ve ever met, Robert Katende, she has grown in the game and has become one of the finest chess players in the world.
Phiona Mutesi is arguably one of the best chess players in the World, according to the World Chess Championship. Her journey from a Ugandan Katwe slum to the world stage as champion chess player was inspired by hunger. In 2005, while searching for food, nine-year-old Phiona followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende, who had also grown up in the Kampala slums. Katende, a war refugee turned missionary, had an improbable dream: to empower kids through chess—traditionally, an elitist game in Uganda. Katende says that once Phiona started participating in chess programs she slowly by slowly began to exhibit a level of chess expertise way ahead of her time. At age 11 she was her Uganda’s junior champion at the 14 a national championship.
“By the end of the tournament, I realized that she had challenged all the girls and had topped the tournament. So that’s when I realized that wow this could be something so special in this girl. Because, I even asked her how she managed to win overs all these people… day by day and she could not fear, her most encouraging point was that she could not fear to play against the boys who had been there long before her. In a way she could always look for those challenging people to get to another level.
Despite a rough and tumble upbringing in the slums, Robert says Phiona grew to love the game of chess, because it’s reminiscent her of her own life, where she has had persevere against great obstacles. Chess allows her to think outside of the box.
“She is one of the few people, that I kind of base on to say that game of chess is the best discipleship tool, because she has totally transformed. The way she used to look at things, the way she used to respond, because this mentality she’s had right from childhood of survival, aggressiveness, that I have to do this and who are to tell me that I can’t do this… You know what; in the slum it’s all about what can I snatch because you have to survive, so that kind of approach helps her.
Tim Crothers, who has followed Phiona Mutesi’s for over two years says her childhood was so challenging, and even to be alive at this time can be viewed as somewhat of miracle..
“When you grow up from the slum, the life is always difficult, just to get food is not simple — even the health is not good… so everything is about struggling.
This year, after qualifying first, she played at the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Turkey, Istanbul. At this prestigious tournament, she won three games, to earn the title “Woman Candidate Master”. She has also travelled the world and met her hero; chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov and Disney is planning to do a kid’s inspirational movie about her remarkable story. .
She is currently in the US, visiting After School Activities Partnerships, (ASAP) for the 9Queens Chess Academy and appeared in Chess in the Schools programs and at Gompers Preparatory Academy in San Diego and the Jay Stallings chess program at Trinity Classical Academy in Santa Clarita.
Ironically, her command of the game at such a young age certainly has had people talking– that she must have the best of coaches, the best education, and the best backing to be as good as she is. But surprisingly, Robert has painstakingly taught her the game each day with other kids in the slum.