Chess is a universal passion. It unifies all people because the rules apply the same to every person regardless of their color, religion, national origin, etc. A Queen moves the same for an American player as it does for someone from the slums of Uganda, such as Phiona Mutesi, who rose to international prominence a few years ago as part of Uganda’s first national chess team. Before that, Uganda had been unable to field a team for a Chess Olympiad due to the country’s disastrous economy, ubiquitous civil war, and corrupt government. It was her ability to overcome the horrific conditions of her every day life in such a way that found her across-the-board from some of the world’s most amazing chess players.
Katwe in the city of Kampala, Uganda is one of those places where when you hear about it, it is almost impossible to erase from your memory. For the unfortunate people that call Katwe home, surviving from one day to the next is a remarkable achievement. The slums of Katwe is a tangled mesh of shacks housing multitudes of families. Many of the young ladies Born into this environment end up as sex slaves or become married at very early ages. In addition, as of 2011, approximately 50% of the teenage girls in that providence are mothers! I have to admit that until I read the book I was completely unaware of this place and the horrific conditions that its people endure every day. Phiona Mutesi comes from this region and not only has she managed to survive, but her discovery of the ancient game of kings has taken her out of its deadly clutches and into the plane halls of some of the worlds largest Chess Olympiads.
She learned to play chess and began to teach it to the other children in her province. As Kirsan was looking to bolster support for his FIDE reelection, he agreed to allow the Organization to fund a Ugandan National team. This was her golden opportunity to escape the slums and to visit another world. Simple things that we take for granted, such as concerts and sporting events were completely alien to her. Hearing her story and exploring the world through the eyes of someone who has yet to experience less than a quarter of the joys that most of us experience was incredibly eye-opening.
In 2012, author Tim Crothers wrote an amazing book called The Queen of Katwe in which he chronicled the conditions of the Katwe slum and the eventual Discovery of chess by Phiona. This is a fascinating read which I highly recommend for both chess players and people interested in the trials and triumphs of other cultures. While I am certain that her triumphs on the board certainly can never erase the tragedies of everyday life in Kampala, those victories speak to the greater influence of chess over culture across the globe. These days, Phiona speaks at events and conferences around the world promoting chess and human and women’s rights. Her struggle and ability to rise above the horrific conditions of her childhood home are a testament to the strength of the human spirit in overcoming the worst of conditions in life to find the best of conditions within ourselves. Fortunately, for those around the world that do not enjoy the pleasure of reading books, Walt Disney has optioned the rights to the book and is working on a movie adaptation to be released sometime around 2015.
The Games of Phiona Mutesi
Phiona still holds onto her dream of becoming a grand master one day and who knows, if I can manage to maintain a moderately successful chess blog, and maybe anything is possible? I found her story to be very inspiring and it is my hope that you will check out her games posted here on the blog, check out her book, and take time to learn and support the people of the struggling Kampala province.