Using the power of Chess to young people


By Paul Ndiho

This a fascinating story about a Ugandan man who grew up in the slums of Kampala. His ability to use chess as a tool to mentor young people to overcome daily challenges and escape slum-life is just remarkable!  It is a story of hope and resilience.

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Ugandan influencer, Robert Katende was until recently relatively unknown at home and abroad. His story of keeping hope alive, and mentoring slum kids through the game of chess, is the subject of a 2016 Disney movie dubbed ‘queen of Katwe. A film that chronicles Phiona Mutesi– a young Ugandan girl raised by her single mother Harriet, played by Kenyan Oscar winner, Lapita Nyong’o. And Robert Katende played by David Oyelowo the Nigerian – American actor.

In his memoir, a knight without a castle, a story of resilience and hope, Katende says his SOM chess academy in the Ugandan capital Kampala has attracted significant attention for its work. The center encourages children from impoverished communities to play the board game to enhance their critical thinking, improve patience and develop other life skills.

“We are having so many social challenges, but the way the kids are growing up, they have not been allowed to be self-reliant, to make personal decisions, to be accountable for their actions. Now when they come to the chess game, the philosophy of the SOM chess academy and the basic is to use chess as a platform to instill these concepts into the lives of these kids so that we can be able to nurture the life skills required for them to be successful.”

Like Phiona Mutesi in the movie “queen of katwe,” who becomes very passionate about chess and so good that she ends up playing in international tournaments on the Ugandan team as a teenager in the 2010 chess Olympiad in Russia.   Sharif Waswa Mbaziira is making his mark too at the SOM chess academy.  The 17-year-old says he always plays to win and in 2018, his focus paid off when he won the bronze medal at the world junior chess a championship for the disabled in New Jersey, USA. He is the first Ugandan with a disability to represent the country in an international chess tournament.

“I won a trophy and medal and brought it back at home. Many people were like, they were not accepting what I have done there, and that is how my life changed. Now i go to school without any problem. I do what I want because of that chess.”

Despite all the hardship he has gone through, Robert katende’s ability to mentor people is impressive– and his journey to international stardom is incredible. His big break came when sports illustrated writer Tim Crothers wrote a book titled “the queen of katwe,” describing his role in Phiona’s life.  Amos Mwesigwa, a chess player, is one of Robert’s apprentices.

“If I keep playing chess, I become a chess master. I will have enough money to satisfy my needs to buy a car, to build a house, and to help other disabled persons who are like me.”

“Disability is not a curse, it’s not an inability. They can still make it irrespective of, that is why I say, okay, we are doing the same thing but differently. So, that is what I tell them, you are differently-abled, but you can still thrive.”

Robert’s success against all the odds illuminates a situation many may find difficult to imagine. However, perhaps, his life’s story will inspire you to achieve even greater things if you stay focused on what you really want. Robert’s work has caught the attention of world leaders, including bill and Melinda gates as well as the Obama Foundation, where he serves an African ambassador.

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