The chess world was turned on its ear in 2010 when Phiona Mutesi, an unknown from the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda, debuted at the 39th Chess Olympiad in Russia. Her skill and determination propelled her to the game's top rank. Now Disney has chronicled her unlikely rise in a movie, The Queen of Katwe, in theatres this month. It was shot on location in Uganda and stars Madina Nalwanga as Phiona.

Up From the Slums
In 2005, Phiona had never seen a chess board before. A poor girl from the Katwe slums, she'd secretly followed her brother into a church. Desperately hungry, she was looking for food but she found something far more sustaining.

Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, Selma, Captive) knew the feeling. He'd also been a poor orphan from Katwe. “All I had was a mattress, a fork and a spoon to my name,” Robert stated in a documentary. He'd thought about ingesting poison to end it all but he couldn't even afford the money to die.

Robert's faith pulled him through, and, with hard work, Robert graduated from university. Skill with a soccer ball helped him attain financial security. Now a soccer coach, he realized not every child was interested in soccer. How could I get them actively involved? he thought. So he started bringing along his chess set, and kids gravitated to the game.

One of these children was Phiona.

“The lifestyle she's led right from childhood is a lifestyle of figuring out what to do, how to survive, what is the next step, because you'll never be safe in Katwe,” says Robert, “so when she came to the board, she felt like this was what she did on a daily basis, figuring out situations, seeing what would work.”

A natural prodigy, Phiona entered her first tournament in 2006, and won. In 2008, just two years after she had first seen a chess board, she was Uganda's junior girl's national champion.  In 2012, she competed in the Chess Olympiad and she came to represent Uganda in the international chess competitions.

“It's unbelievable,” says a proud Robert. “This is a miracle to me.” “My dream in chess is to become a grandmaster,” says Phiona.

“My dream in life is to become a pediatrician.”

Despite all of Phiona's success, she has always kept her focus on God, family and friends. As with Robert, she recognizes how blessed her life has become because of chess and now she uses that same game to help open the doors of opportunity for others.

“God Is There”
“Sometimes the place where you are is not the place where you belong,” says Robert. His faith helped him endure grinding poverty and the loss of his mother. Having escaped Katwe, he was determined to help others do the same.

“We all need to step out of our comfort zone, to make one person's life better,” Robert says. “God has made us who we are and we can make a difference if we choose to do so.”

Leave a Comment