The right moves propel champ from slum to screen stardom

Focus, Normal

The National, Monday 15th April, 2013

 UGANDA’S teenage chess champion Phiona Mutesi is so focused on improving her performance that she reportedly replays her moves with the salt and pepper shakers in hotel restaurants while attending international tournaments.

“(And) when I’m going to sleep I think of the game,” says the first titled female Ugandan chess player, who has represented her country overseas three times.

“I think of my background and what I’ve become.”

Just having enough food to eat, let alone flying on aeroplanes and staying in hotels, is still a novelty for Mutesi, who does not know when her birthday is but thinks she is 15 or 16.

Mutesi was born in Uganda’s biggest slum Katwe, in the capital Kampala. Her father died from AIDS when she was three, and she dropped out of school at six. When she was nine, her family was forced onto the streets after her mother Harriet could no longer afford the rent.

“My life was so, so bad because I was living in a poor situation,” Mutesi says, speaking at St Mbuga vocational secondary school in Makindye, Kampala, a four-time chess champion institution, in a large part thanks to her.

“That time I was always hungry and could not get anything to eat.”

It was her desperate determination to find a meal that led Mutesi, the heroine of a forthcoming Walt Disney film, to discover chess.

Mutesi’s brother Brian had told her about a chess programme started in Katwe by Robert Katende of the Christian mission Sports Outreach Ministry. With the lessons came a free cup of porridge.

One afternoon in 2005, the famished pair went to the church where the tutelage took place. “It was my first time to hear that chess existed,” she recalled.

“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.”

She began trekking 6km every day to play the game. 

Within two weeks she knew how to move the pieces well and two years later she won the Uganda women’s junior championship.

However, it was only after she played in Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan in 2009 that she developed an interest in the game, she says.

“I like chess because it involves planning and it’s the one [thing] which has led me to everything which I have now,” she says.

“The (old) life I was living, it also involved planning. 

“I was only thinking how can I manage to get something to eat. I didn’t expect anything to happen like this.

“But now I’ve got hope of becoming a grandmaster and becoming a medical doctor for kids in slums, even to build an orphanage.”

Mutesi’s remarkable story came to prominence in the book The Queen of Katwe by American sportswriter Tim Crothers, which forms the basis of the Disney film on her life.

The first World Chess Olympiad Mutesi competed in was held in Siberia in 2010. It was the first Olympiad that Uganda’s women’s 

team had taken part in, thanks to funding by the World Chess Federation, FIDE, and Mutesi was the team’s second-seeded player.

By that time, she had never read a book nor seen a computer.

After last year’s Olympiad in Turkey, Mutesi was named a woman candidate master, the bottom-ranking title given by FIDE.

Mutesi hopes to compete in 

the Olympiad in Norway next year but both she and her coach know this depends not only on her performance in the qualifying stages next year, but also on funding.

“Her dream is to become a grandmaster from a country that doesn’t even have an international master,” coach Katende says.

“There’s a certain level that you cannot easily go beyond given the resources, the equipment, the available literature and the training.

“If she goes somewhere where there’s a better platform, better resources, the sky’s the limit for her.” – SMH