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

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

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

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.