Uganda’s junior chess champion lost her father to AIDS when she was three. Phiona Mutesi’s mother could not afford school fees so from age six the child had no opportunity for education. By the time she was nine, her mother could no longer pay rent. The family was living on the streets when hunger gave Phiona a new life.
Her brother, Brian, told her that chess lessons came with a cup of porridge. So Mutesi tagged along to the outreach center of the Kampala Sports Ministry, a Christian mission, hoping to find something to ease her hunger pangs. What she found was chess. She told Afritorial:
“It was my first time to hear that chess was existing.
“I was very dirty. People started quarrelling with me and saying, ‘the girl’s so dirty’. I also quarrelled with them.
“My brother was very annoyed and took me back to my mum. My mum told me to never go back to chess, but I went back because I wanted that cup of porridge.”
Robert Katende started the chess program in 2006, as a way of reaching children who were too weak to play sports or had no interest in them. The idea caught on quickly. Within a few weeks, he had attracted 40 children. When he noticed Phiona Mutesi watching from a distance, he invited her to give it a try.
This was a child who had learned how to survive on the streets of the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda. She knew how to size up a situation and act in her own best interests. Chess strategy came naturally to her. After two years she won the Uganda women’s junior championship. When she played in Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan in 2009, she knew she had found her passion.
Now she is the subject of The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Rise from an African Slum, a book by American sportswriter Tim Crothers. Disney is planning a film about her. She has traveled internationally and is learning to read and use a computer. The Uganda Chess Federation is looking into the possibility of sending her to an American school for education and training. And her dreams of becoming a grandmaster and a doctor now seem within reach.
Hunger pangs led Phiona Mutesi to the outreach center. Curiosity, intelligence and drive pushed her up the ladder in chess competitions. Now she has a bright future ahead. She gives me hope.
Meet this extraordinary young woman in the ESPN video below.