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Film Sparks New Popularity for Chess in Uganda


18-year-old Phiona Mutesi plays a game of chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala, Jan. 26, 2015.

18-year-old Phiona Mutesi plays a game of chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala, Jan. 26, 2015.

In Uganda, the Disney movie production of The Queen of Katwe, about young chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, has sparked new interest in the game. Now children from around the country are taking up chess like never before.

Enthusiasm for chess has been on the rise in Uganda ever since Disney started filming The Queen of Katwe. The movie follows the life of Phiona Mutesi, who made it from the slums to become one of Uganda's best, and youngest, chess players. This publicity has had a noted impact on Uganda's Chess Federation, as enrollment has doubled in recent months.

Once a game played primarily in cities, chess has expanded its reach and with children in rural communities becoming interested in the game. Unable to afford a chess board, kids will often create their own set out of soap figurines or bottle caps, and play against their classmates.

Caxton Rodgers Kalule, the publicity specialist for the Ugandan Chess Federation, has been playing the game for 17 years. He now finds himself traveling around the country teaching chess to youths. However, he said, chess is more than just a simple board game. Rather, it teaches people how to think, focus and understand strategy. For this reason, one of the federation's many focuses are vulnerable kids.

"In the not too near future we want chess being played in every district across the country. Especially in these densely populated slum areas. Because we discovered that we can use chess like to put kids out of the streets. For example even Mutesi was among the kids who were on the street, but it was because of chess we managed to put them together in one place,” said Kalule.

“And we found that they even started getting interest in going back to school, rather than going on the street and pickpocketing, those kinds of things. With time we really hope that we shall have a very very positive impact on society around the country," he added.

It is also a unifying game, as players do not need to share the same culture, gender or even language to enjoy playing together. Mathias Ssonko, one of the newest members to the Ugandan National Team, said chess expands into every reach of his life, helping him decide on everything from business to marriage.

"It's a romantic game. I attach everything onto it. I take it like a business; I take it like a movie. I can lift it and put it in every aspect of life. Chess affects my lifestyle, it affects my grade score it affects my music,” he explained. “In business I can said now my King, it's me, and I’m the managing director. My queen, I can have managers down here these major pieces. I can have casual laborers or I can make it a war tactic."

The U.S. Embassy in Kampala has also put together a beginners team and received a massive outpouring of interest from the community. However, funding for chess programs still remains a challenge in Uganda. Airline tickets to Olympiads or championships must be donated and many players end up spending their own money to compete internationally. Yet for chess lovers in Uganda, cost comes secondary to their love of the game.

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