From pawn to Queen; How chess saved the Queen of Katwe

From pawn to Queen; How chess saved the Queen of Katwe


At nine, life seemed pretty straight forward for Ugandan chess champion, Phiona Mutesi. It was also bleak. Born into gnawing poverty in Katwe (kot-way), Uganda’s largest slum, each day for her and her family was an earnest struggle. From daily meals to having a roof over their heads, life seemed to have dealt her the most bitter specie of lemons. They seemed like helpless pawns moved one square at a time, at will, by life’s circumstances; her mother full of strength and resilience to provide for and protect her young family without the support of a husband, her brothers – happy, boisterous, full of life yet surrounded by a kind of death, and her sister, one of the many casualties of life in the slums as a teenage girl with a desire for the finer things in life.

Then comes Robert Katende, a Ugandan missionary who is attached with a sports outreach programme spearheaded by the missionaries in Kampala the nation’s capital. In 2003, Katende started a Chess Academy where her brother retired to at the end of his daily antics at bus parks and streets trying to get people to buy his and his sister’s maize which they sold to help feed the family. At first the children would come for Katende’s free porridge which he served them at the beginning of the classes. With time they were spurred by the game and the promise that it could sharpen their minds and improve their problem-solving skills even if they did not have the opportunity to go to school yet. Phiona soon learnt that she was specially gifted and that the simple game could change her life and her future.

The author of the book from which the 2016 movie Queen of Katwe was partly adapted, Tim Crowther, describes life in this slum as listless, transient and repetitive. He also refers to it the worst place on earth comprising hundreds of mass wooden shacks precariously standing on dirt ridden earth and sewage, stifling stench and children – lots of them. There was a general sense of resignation and defeat in this slum with the deeply set belief that to be born in this slum was to die in it.

As a girl growing up in the slums, the odds are not in your favour. With majority of men and boys lost to drugs, sexually transmitted diseases and crime, young women are left to cater for households by themselves. Usually, to make ends meet, prostitution becomes an option for them. The average girl in the slums of Katwe is more likely to get pregnant by age 14 or less than she is to finish primary basic school, a sorry case of children raising children.

Phiona is one of the hundreds of children in the slums of Katwe whose lives have improved greatly by their participation in the game of chess. Katende argues that the game has helped them in learning and improved the academic abilities of the children when they finally get the opportunity to attend school.

Rapid urbanization and industrialization is on the rise. Coupled with the high prices of housing in urban dwellings as a result of the demand and supply gap, development of slums are on the rise around the world. The United Nation estimates that in 2014, there were 863 million slum dwellers worldwide.

The recent demolition embarked at the Otodo-Gbame waterfront slum by the Lagos state government in defiance of court orders is one of the many flailing attempts by the government to curb the spread of slum settlements in Lagos.

What if we are getting the solution to the slums all wrong? What if curing the housing deficit isn’t the only solution to the slum problem? Asides from housing, lack of education, crime and teenage pregnancy are part of the problems that need to be addressed as well. What if the developmental programmes and outreaches to these slums go beyond monthly or annual visits with clothes and food items that last only a while and the children outgrow?



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