Phiona Mutesi happened upon chess as a nine-year-old in the sprawling and impoverished Katwe slum of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Now a chess champion who competes internationally, her story is being turned into a Hollywood film with Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o tapped to play her mother.
Back in 2005, Mutesi discovered a chess program held in a church in the Katwe slum districts in Kampala. Potential players were enticed with a free cup of porridge, and Mutesi began organizing her days around her visits to the church.
“It was so interesting,” she said of her introduction to pawns, rooks and kings in 2005. “But I didn’t go there for chess, I went just to get a meal.”
The young girl developed a talent for chess, which was introduced in Uganda in the 1970s by foreign doctors and is still seen as a game predominantly played by the rich.
“I like chess because it involves planning,” said Mutesi. “If you don’t plan, you will end up with a bad life.”
The film of Mutesi’s story, titled Queen of Katwe, is based on a book of the same name about Mutesi by American writer Tim Crothers. It is to be shot in Uganda and South Africa, directed by Mira Nair and produced by Disney. Filming is reported to begin in March.
Coach and mentor Robert Katende of the Sports Outreach Ministry remembers meeting Mutesi for the first time a decade ago: “She was really desperate for survival,” he said.
Katende is now building a chess academy to accommodate 150 students outside Kampala.
Two years into the game, Mutesi became Uganda’s national women’s junior champion, retaining the title the following year.
“Phiona Mutesi has flourished,” said Vianney Luggya, president of the Uganda Chess Federation. “She made history in the schools’ competition by becoming the first girl to compete in the boys’ category. It was certainly surprising.”
She participated in her first big competition, Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament, in South Sudan in 2009. “It was really wonderful because it was my first time abroad,” she said. “It was my first time to sleep in a hotel. We came back with a trophy.”
Since then Mutesi has competed in chess Olympiads in Siberia, Turkey and Norway – after which she was given the Woman Candidate Master ranking by the World Chess Federation.
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