Imagine living in a slum. There is little food to split between you and your family and you are a minority in your age group because you have regularly attended school before. This was exactly the situation that teenager Phiona Mutesi found herself in when she started learning chess.
The slum where Phiona lives is called Katwe, and it is located right in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where veteran and refugee Robert Katende began a chess program for children, giving them food in return for completing a lesson. Of his program, Katende has said that he had started it hoping to teach analytic and problem-solving skills that the children could apply to succeed in their own lives.
This was the program that would come to change Phiona’s life and turn her into “The Queen of Katwe”.
“I was living a hard life, where I was sleeping on the streets, and you couldn’t have anything to eat in the streets. So that’s when I decided for my brother to get a cup of porridge,” Mutesi told CNN.
Although she was unfamiliar with the game, as is most of Uganda, Phiona worked hard, practicing every day for a year. Eventually, she began to win against older children and compete for titles. Since those early days, Phiona has represented her country in several international chess competitions in countries such as Sudan, Siberia, and Istanbul.
Although life for her is still hard – she still lives in the Katwe slum with her family – winning competitions and working hard to one day become a Grandmaster keeps her hopeful. A grant that she has received through her competing has even allowed her to go back to school and develop her reading and writing skills.
While Phiona’s story of success has yet to win her the chess title of Grandmaster, she has gained another, unofficial reputation as the ultimate underdog. She is an underdog on the global chess stage both because she comes from Africa, a continent where chess is culturally absent in most countries, and because she is from Uganda specifically, a nation that is one of the poorest on the continent. The fact that she is from Katwe, a slum, is a strike against her even to other Ugandans. However, despite these odds, she has achieved enormous success given her circumstances.
Phiona Mutesi’s inspiring story was written into a book called “The Queen of Katwe,” by Tim Crothers, and was published in October of 2012. Since then, Disney has bought the rights to the story and has started making a movie to chronicle Phiona’s journey to the international chess stage. The Queen of Katwe remains steadfast in attaining her dream of becoming a Grandmaster and is an inspiration to us all.
– Nina Narang