As the highly popular and acclaimed movie Queen of Katwe starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Hollywood gem and Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo hits the cinema today 21 October, New African woman Deputy Editor Belinda Otas, catches up with Phiona Mutesi, the hitherto unsung child chess genius on which the film is based.
While many are rightly enthralled and heading to cinemas to watch the much publicised Queen of Katwe, when we catch up with Phiona Mutesi – (the actual “Queen of Katwe” above with her mentor Robert Katende doing what she does best at an international tournanment) – it is clear from the start, that the young chess prodigy has even bigger and deeper goals to add to her brilliance of the game that has now made her world famous. She tells the New African Woman her goal is to become a Child Rights lawyer, as well continuing to inspire young people into the game of chess encouraging them to dream big to become grand masters, just l
Softly spoken but determined, Phiona Mutesi is not your average 20-year-old chess champion. Although her life and journey have been as difficult, her zeal to inspire her peers is deep-seated and heart warming. Even Lupita Nyong’o, who plays her mother Harriet, in Queen of Katwe admits Phiona’s story is important because of its global resonance. “Phiona has had a very, very large impact. She is a hero. You hear her name spoken and it’s spoken with awe and respect,” Nyong’o recently told during ABC News in an interview promoting the movie which is now on general release.
No one tells Phiona’s story better than Phiona as she recounts the genesis of events that led her to the SOM Chess Academy in 2005, at the age of nine. “I lost my dad when I was three years old. After my dad died, we had nothing. My mum had no job. We didn’t even have food. At the age of 6, I dropped out of school because my mum didn’t have money to pay my school fees. After dropping out of school, even rent money we didn’t have and we were chased out of our house and started sleeping on the streets.”
She adds: “Even on the streets, we didn’t have enough to eat. My brother came and told me about the chess programme and that after every game, they get a meal every evening. So I followed him to find something to eat because I was always hungry on the streets. The first time I followed him I got porridge. That was the day I discovered chess.”
It was a day that has forever changed the trajectory of Mutesi’s life. Since then, Mutesi has come through the ranks to become a National Chess Champion in Uganda. By 2011, when Tim Crothers wrote the article, the Game of Her Life about Phiona as a chess prodigy attending her first Olympiad and the work of Sports Outreach, the wheels were set in motion for what would become the book, Queen of Katwe. The rest of the story will reverberate around the world later tis year in a film produced by Disney. Marking the first time, the company has made a film set entirely on the African continent.
Queen of Katwe, trailer below, directed by Mira Nair is a coming-of-age story that sees newcomer Madina Nalwanga in the title role. It chronicles one young woman’s story of triumph over adversity.
Mutesi tells the New African Woman that the struggles she faced on a daily basis, made it extremely difficult to cope. In fact, it affected her ability on the chessboard in the early days. “It was so hard for me at first because we had nothing and it was hard for me to focus on the board and train.” However after six months at the academy, her prowess manoeuvring on the board started to shine through and as she won more chess games, caught the attention of Robert Katende, director of SOM Academy. Katende is a civil engineer by profession, who invested his time into the children of his community. He describes himself as a product of the slum because as a child, he too had lived in Katwe. He knew and understood their struggles. The academy was to serve as a place to help build their confidence and self-esteem and give the children something to hope for.
Phiona explains that after the coach got to know her and the academy learnt of her plight, her family was given money to rent a house “which was not far away from the chess academy. I started to settle and focus on the games and started playing very well and started overcoming some of the things in my life.”
Growing up in Katwe, impressed on her at an early age the type of life and future she preferred. Mutesi says she does not begrudge living in the slum or the fact that it forms a huge part of her story. In fact, it was important for her not to allow the environment she comes from cloud her hopes for the future. If anything, it propelled her to play well.
“Sometimes, I feel it’s good for me to look at the circumstances that I was in because it made me so determined. I don’t want those circumstances again. Now when I play, I still look at my background and say no, I don’t want to be like that,” she tells New African Woman.
Admittedly, her life has changed immensely and in ways even she never expected.
“I lived in Katwe, I didn’t know anything about the world. The only thing I knew was the life of struggling for food and street life. I have been to different countries and developed new friendships and I have seen how other people live. It has inspired me to live a different kind of life. I have managed to get some money and build my mum a house outside the slum. I’m back at school, which is also good. So many things have happened,” she adds.
Prodded on how how it feels to have a film made about her life she beams: “It’s great, because when I look back, a situation where no one knew me, and now to have a movie about my life, I hope it inspires more people.”
More than the achievement of having a film about her life on the big screen, Phiona is equally proud that her story has encouraged other young people in Uganda to take up chess.
“I feel so proud. I still can’t believe it. I didn’t know it could get to this level.”
Indeed, Phiona has not allowed gender or the whispers and noise that girls do not play chess stop her. Neither has the added reality that she is a girl from the slum held her back. “It’s true that girls are always undermined but the thing is there are many who have come up. But it’s still hard because men are looking at it in a bad way because they feel that they are the ones who are supposed to be superior to everyone.”
In her case, she quickly gained the upper hand at the chessboard after defeating one of the boys. “It was hard for me but the first time until I beat a boy. I just felt the urge to play even more. When I beat him, all the guys came around and said how can a girl beat you? It was so interesting and because boys they were the powerful and better ones at the game at that time. When I beat one of them, I just wanted to beat more boys at chess and I started challenging all of them. The time came when I could challenge and beat most them, even those that I was training with. Eventually, I just did not have and still don’t have any problems on the chessboard when my opponent is a boy.”
This is where Robert Katende’s work comes into focus. As portrayed by David Oyelowo, the Nigerian-British actor in the movie, he becomes a coach and mentor to Phiona. Katende is the man Phiona refers to as her father for the impact he has had on her life. “I take him as my dad. He has been there for me. When things fail, we talk. He has been there to advise and practice with me and encourage me to stay focused and stay in school.”
She describes Katende’s input as invaluable. “It means so much in my life because right now. When he speaks, I pay attention to what he tells me. If it’s a game, there is a way he prepares me mentally. He provides for me and he is always there for me.” It is a bond that has seen them through challenging times.
Katende credits Phiona’s determination and laser focus for her success. This has enabled her to compete at all chess competitions at the national level in Uganda. She has participated in chess competitions across Africa, and Olympiads in Russia and Turkey. Notwithstanding, if there is something Phiona takes away from her own story, she says it is the lesson that “I got to know it does not matter where you come from but what you make of life.”
It is with this same insight that she tells young people, especially young women to be focused. Using the analogy of a chess game, Phiona explains – “When you are playing chess, it does not matter whether you are playing a boy or a man, or a woman you step up and see your opponent as your enemy. It’s up to you to focus on what you need to do to win. So I would say to young girls to be focused. Be focused on your life, your game and whatever you are doing and be patient. Don’t fear whatever comes in life. Be strong in everything you do. Be wise and don’t lose hope in life.”
It’s true that girls are always undermined but the thing is there are many who have come up. But it’s still hard because men are looking at it in a bad way because they feel that they are the ones who are supposed to be superior to everyone.
Educating the Queen of Katwe
Her education is one thing Phiona and Katende take seriously. They fit chess tournaments around her education 100 percent, although Phiona had a lot of school catching up to do after dropping out at a very young age. Now 20, she will graduate from high school this December and already knows what her next step will be.
First, she is going to dedicate more time to her training on the chessboard. And Katende adds that they are “working around the clock to try and secure a university place for her either in the UK or US, or wherever an opportunity arise, so she can advance her academic studies.” Phiona is very clear about what she wants to do: “With my chess, I want to become a grandmaster. With my academic goals, I want to become a lawyer. I want to be a lawyer for kids because when I look at kids in Uganda, especially those in the slums, there is no one to speak on their behalf.” She says with emphasise: “That’s what I would like to do..be a Children’s rights lawyer.”
It was hard for me but the first time until I beat a boy… When I beat him, all the guys came around and said how can a girl beat you? I started challenging all of them. The time came when I could challenge and beat most them, even those that I was training with. Eventually, I just did not have and still don’t have any problems on the chessboard when my opponent is a boy.
Queen of Katwe is now out on general release.