Phiona Mutesi was a muddy, desperate 9-year-old foraging for food in Uganda’s biggest slum, Katwe, when she discovered, through her older brother Brian, a chess program.
It was not pawns, rooks, bishops, knights or a king that drew her to a church verandah in Katwe, Kampala – it was what came with the lessons: a free bowl of porridge.
“We didn’t have food. We were sleeping on the streets because we didn’t have the money to rent a house. It was a hard time,” says Mutesi, 17, whose father died of AIDS when she was 3.
“The pieces looked attractive to me. I didn’t want to learn the game. That time I just wanted to get a cup of porridge.”
Mutesi was dirty and barefoot. The other children in the program, run by Robert Katende of Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian mission, told her to leave.
“I didn’t feel bad because that’s the life in Katwe,” she tells IPS news, speaking from the lounge in Katende’s house where she is currently staying. In the cabinet behind her, her trophies are piled high.
“If you don’t fight you can’t get it.”
Mutesi returned again and again to the chess program, but only for the free meal.
“That’s when I got to practice and I got better. Then I got an interest in chess,” she says.
“I like chess because it involves planning.
“The life I’ve been living, it also involved planning. When you’re living in a slum, you also have to plan ahead: how am I going to get food tomorrow?”
After winning her first Father Grimes Schools Tournament, Mutesi went to the 2009 International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan. Her first time outside Uganda. Her first time on a plane.
“Wow, I was so excited and couldn’t believe it, until we reached (our destination),” she recalls. “I thought we are near heaven.”
Since then, she has competed in two chess Olympiads in Siberia and Turkey. She was also named a Woman Candidate Master, the bottom-ranking title given by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, after last year’s event in Istanbul.
She recently spoke at the Women in the World summit in New York, attended by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey.
In the United States, Mutesi also played against her hero, grandmaster Garry Kasparov, one of the game’s greatest champions of the 20th century. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has reportedly asked to play her, and Disney is in the early stages of production of a movie on her life. One U.S. school has even started a tournament in her name.
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