By: Paul Ndiho

Phiona Mutesi is a Ugandan girl, who until recently was relatively unknown at home, and is now making international headlines. Her story is the subject of a new Disney movie dubbed ‘Queen of Katwe,’ a biopic chronicling her rise to Chess Master despite a lack of formal education.

The new uplifting drama “Queen of Katwe” starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo had its world premiere last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film follows Phiona Mutesi who is living in poverty with her siblings and mother – played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) in the Katwe slum until she stumbles across a chess class run by charity worker, Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo.

“It’s a life-affirming African story and as someone of African descent, we don’t see enough of that I believe in cinema, in the press as well, so I’m very proud to see a story like this made by Disney as well.”

Despite hardships, Phiona Mutesi’s ability to play chess is amazing– and her journey to international stardom is incredible. Her big break came when Sports Illustrated writer Tim Crothers wrote a book titled “The Queen of Katwe” describing Phiona’s life. Lupita Nyong’o shared the unique experience of playing the chess champion’s mother.

“I learned a lot about motherhood. I’m not a mother, and yet I had to play a mother, and I learned what it takes…. a bit about what it takes to provide for your family and to be concerned about so many people’s wellbeing. It’s almost like your heart is dislocated and running around and just feeling the fear, inhabiting the fear of a mother letting her chicks out every day to survive.”

Award-winning director Mira Nair explains her decision to take the project on:

“When I heard the story of Phiona and met her, it’s pretty inspiring. I thought of used it to use the locations I loved, the music, and seeing the country from within, feeling the dignity and the complete joy even during the best of struggles and it was to make a story without sentiment but with truth and truth is very funny and stylish and sassy in Katwe,”

In addition to all the accolades, Phiona has traveled the world and met her hero; chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. Inspired by her example, Ugandan children are taking up chess like never before.

Paul Ndiho was one of the first international journalists to bring Phiona Mutesi’s story to light nearly four years ago.

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