News / Africa

Teen Chess Prodigy is Kampala's Pride and Joy

Phiona Mutesi considers a move at the Sports Outreach ministry in Kampala, Uganda, January 28, 2012. (H. Heuler/VOA)
Phiona Mutesi considers a move at the Sports Outreach ministry in Kampala, Uganda, January 28, 2012. (H. Heuler/VOA)
Phiona Mutesi, 16, grew up in a Kampala slum and learned chess from a mission when she stumbled in looking for free food. Now she's an international chess champion, playing in tournaments around the world.

The city's impoverished Katwe slum seems an unlikely place to pick up a game of chess. But that is exactly what a room full of local children are doing, some perched on wooden benches, others sitting on the floor. This is where Uganda’s most improbable chess champion, Phiona Mutesi, first laid eyes on a board. “They accepted me, but the first day they didn’t because I was very dirty," she recalled. "They didn’t accept me even to touch the pieces.”

Happenstance

Mutesi started playing when she was nine-years-old. She had dropped out of school, and was selling corn on the street. Mutesi heard that the US-based Sports Outreach ministry was teaching chess to slum children, she says, but she only came because she knew they were serving porridge as well.

“We were evicted out of our house because we couldn’t afford that money. So when I heard that, I was like, ‘maybe I can also get there to know about chess and then I get a cup of porridge’, because I was hungry [at] that time,” she explained.

In Uganda chess is seen as a white man’s sport, and too difficult for girls. But Mutesi turned out to be something of a prodigy, and began qualifying to represent Uganda in international tournaments. She has competed twice in the International Chess Olympiad, and is now considered the best female player in the country.

But Robert Katende, who runs the Katwe chess program, thinks there is more to Mutesi than just raw talent. There is something about slum life that makes these kids particularly adept at the game, he says.

“I very much believe that having gone through all they go through right from childhood, figuring out how to survive on a daily basis, they do easily identify themselves with the board because when they come to play, they have still to face challenges," Katende noted. "Devise moves, think what will be the next step, what will come after that. Which I think somehow makes them understand it better.”

More than child's play

Unlike most young chess players, the children in Katende’s program do not have computers. They train by playing one another, using battered boards and grubby wooden pieces. Nor have they studied books of openings and combinations, which, says Katende, makes them unpredictable opponents.

“No combinations, no memorizing lines, nothing whatsoever. It’s always, think at the situation and devise the best move. Many people actually lose games to these children, simply because of that, I believe," said Katende. "Because they expect them to play certain lines, and they don’t. They end up playing their own game.”

Book and a movie

Mutesi’s unusual story is the subject of a book, “The Queen of Katwe”, published last October. She has even caught the attention of Disney, which has plans to make a movie about her.

But she has also inspired the people around her, especially the children of Katwe. Her brother Brian Mugabi admits that when Mutesi first started chess, the boys did not think she would be worth playing against. “They never wanted to play with girls, because girls were easy. The girls were actually not good,” he stated.

Now, says Mugabi, even the boys see her as a role model. “I think that challenges boys so that also they can be like her. So they have to train very hard and to put in very much so that they can be better," he said.

Phiona Mutesi stands near where she grew up in Katwe slum, Kampala, Uganda, January 28, 2012. (H. Heuler/VOA)Phiona Mutesi stands near where she grew up in Katwe slum, Kampala, Uganda, January 28, 2012. (H. Heuler/VOA)
x
Phiona Mutesi stands near where she grew up in Katwe slum, Kampala, Uganda, January 28, 2012. (H. Heuler/VOA)
Phiona Mutesi stands near where she grew up in Katwe slum, Kampala, Uganda, January 28, 2012. (H. Heuler/VOA)
Mutesi says chess has changed her own perspective as well. She is back in school, the money from Disney bought her family some land, and she dreams of becoming a chess Grandmaster and a doctor. She never imagined such a life when she was a child, she says. “I was behaving badly, you couldn’t believe. But right now I behave well," she noted. "I didn’t have hope [at] that time, but now I’m having hope of becoming a doctor. I was just thinking about how I’m going to go through that day, that’s all.”

Mutesi was named Candidate Master last year, the lowest-ranking title in the World Chess Federation. It is a first step, says Katende, and she has great potential. But Uganda has never produced a Grandmaster before, and there are still plenty of hurdles in her way.

You May Like

HRW: Egypt's Trial of Morsi ‘Badly Flawed’

Human Rights Watch says former Egypt leader's detention without charge for more than three weeks after his removal from office violated Egyptian law; government rejects criticism More

Photogallery Lancet Report Calls for Major Investment in Surgery

In its report published by The Lancet, panel of experts says people are dying from conditions easily treated in the operating room such as hernia, appendicitis, obstructed labor, and serious fractures More

Music Industry Under Sway of Digital Revolution

Millions of people in every corner of the Earth now can enjoy a vast variety and quantity of music in a way that has never before been possible More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs