Queen of Katwe: How chess changes lives

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Phiona Mutesi got out of the Katwe slums in Uganda by playing chess. Then a book was written about her and a film made. Just over a year after the film’s release, she talks to DW about how chess has changed her life.

Katwe is one of the biggest slums in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Poverty and recurrent floods make life hard for the thousands of people living there. And getting out of the slum is even more difficult. But 21-year-old Phiona Mutesi found an unusual route out of those streets, even though for years Katwe was the only world she knew.

“When you come from nowhere and no one knows you then no one expects anything from you and you don’t expect anything from yourself,” she tells DW. “I only knew Katwe. There was nobody that inspired me, I only knew Katwe and the slums.”

For a girl who had once lost all hope, Phiona has come a long way. As a kid she couldn’t go to school, and now she is a college student in Seattle. And she went from somebody who nobody knew to someone who has had a movie made about her life. And the key to her remarkable story is … chess.

Read more:

– Uganda: Is it still Africa’s bread-basket?

– The ancient pastime of strategy games

– Film festival seeks to show a different Africa

Robert Katende in his chess school with some of his pupils (DW/P. Shabani)

‘Tactical play’

It was in a chess class run by coach Robert Katende that Phiona and many other children like her learnt something they could apply to the rest of their lives. Katende calls it “tactical play.” 

“The philosophy is simple,” he tells DW. “Chess has a lot to offer. It’s more than just winning medals and becoming a champion.”

Katende runs projects for differently abled kids. Around 15 years ago, he set up his classes in Katwe, attracting children with the offer of free meals. 

“Personally, I look at it as a great empowerment tool. It empowers someone to develop skills that can make you successful in life. It is a game of strategy; it is a game of decision making, a game of problem solving, and time management. So if you are able to integrate those skills from the chess board into your lifestyle, I bet you will never fail in life.”

Uganda Chess School (DW/P. Shabani)

His classroom is full of kids gathered around chessboards, playing games, with intense focus. One small boy explains why he decided to take up chess.

“I play chess because it makes you think outside the box.” He says he hopes to manage musicians when he grows up. 

Talent for chess

At first, Phiona wasn’t interested in the chess lessons. She was busy working, but her older brother Brian had signed up for Katende’s chess program. And one day, the desire for a free meal became so overwhelming that Phiona followed him. That day she did a lot more than just fill her stomach, she discovered that she had a talent for chess. It turned out to be a life-changing moment.

In 2016, a film about Phiona’s life came out, produced by Disney, called “Queen of Katwe.” Just as the film depicts, Phiona started playing chess tournaments and went back to school thanks to a scholarship.

Phiona is by no means the only success story in coach Katende’s chess program, but the American sports journalist Tim Crothers chose her as the main character for his book, “The Queen of Katwe.” And that book was turned into the Disney movie.

Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende (DW/P. Shabani)

Life-changing game

Just over a year after her life was depicted on the big screen, Phiona explains how chess has changed her life.

“Chess has taught me many things,” she says. “If you look at the board, it is like life itself, like, you look at it when you are starting a game, you always have to plan everything you are starting. So even in your daily life you have to plan, you have to strategize. There is always a dream to achieve, so you have to plan with the pieces you have, to achieve the goals that you have.”

Today, coach Katende has multiple chess academies all over Uganda and he has reached over 1500 children. For him, the movie feels like a great acknowledgment of his work and that of all the kids in his program.

“Wherever they have come from, that is not where they are now. It has been such a tremendous transformation. Some of them were on the street; some of them didn’t have any hope in life. Right now they have dreams of becoming engineers, becoming lawyers, becoming responsible citizens. So for me, everyone is a Phiona in the program.”

A boy holding the King and the Queen outside the chess school in Katwe (DW/P. Shabani)

But of course, real life isn’t a fairy tale. The movie has had an impact on Phiona, Robert Katende and on Katwe.

Not all their problems have been solved. The movie didn’t become a box office hit. Phiona still needs more funding to continue college. And even though Katende built a new chess academy, the amount of kids has doubled, so he is almost out of space already.

But still, Phiona and Katende don’t regret the movie about their lives. Katende thinks “Queen of Katwe” demonstrated that whilst you can’t help everyone, everyone can help someone.

Phiona hopes that the movie will inspire kids struggling all over the world, and will help restore their hopes in the same way that chess gave her something to plan for and a way to organize her life.

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