Walking Out of the Katwe Slums

For a pre-teen girl scrounging for food in the Ugandan slums of Katwe, the offer of pushing around some black and white objects on a checkered board in exchange for porridge was impossible to pass up.

Phiona Mutesi

Phiona Mutesi
Photograph: Xan Rice for the Guardian

This craving for food started Phiona Mutesi on a journey to becoming the youngest person ever to win the African chess championship and attaining a Woman Candidate Master title at the 2012 World Chess Olympiad.

Life for Phiona in the slums was routine.  No clocks, no calendars, no records of birthdays. Each day morphed into the next, all with the same agenda…. rummaging for food and clean drinking water. She walked two hours daily for water, weaving her way through the raw sewage and dodging the rats, dogs, and cattle that were competing for the same basic necessities. Even greater threats awaited her from the men who preyed on young girls.

During one interview Phiona stated, “Chess is a lot like my life. If you make smart moves you can stay away from danger, but you know any bad decision could be your last.”

In the game of life, Phiona is the utmost underdog….

  1. She’s from Africa – which makes her an underdog in the world.
  2. She’s from Uganda – which makes her an underdog in Africa, as it’s one of the poorer countries on that continent.
  3. She’s from Katwe – which makes her an underdog in Uganda because it’s the most impoverished slum in that country.
  4. She’s a girl – which makes her an underdog among the people in that slum. Phiona is one of the 42% of illiterate women there. She is valued for little more than sex and child care.
Chess Coach and Student

Robert Katende (left) in Katwe, Uganda, with Phiona Mutesi.
Photo by David Johnson, Silentimages.org.

It was at the Sports Outreach Institute where Phiona met missionary and chess coach Robert Katende. She was so mesmerized with the game that she walked six kilometers daily to play chess and get a bowl of porridge. She realized her talent for the game when she was beating much older boys and within a year beating her coach. She had an extraordinary ability to envision the board many moves ahead.

Chess has transported Phiona out of Katwe to faraway places like Russia, Turkey, and the United States. She’s won many tournaments. She’s become an inspiration to people all over the world.  There’s even a book, “The Queen of Katwe,” by Tim Crothers about Phiona’s life and a Disney movie in the works. But, still, she goes home to the slums.

She’s back in school learning to read and write thanks to a grant from Sports Outreach. And her family has hope that one day they will walk out of the slums of Katwe.

“Chess gave me hope, whereby now I’m having a hope of becoming a doctor and … a grand master,” Phiona said.

To all the Phionas out there, when there seems to be no hope…. keep your eye on the board. Your miracle may be just one chess move away.



For more information on Phiona Mutesi, check out ESPN’s article, “Game of her life”.

1 Comment

  • John mutende

    December 20, 2012

    What God can do no man can do.Fiona you are a blessing,remember also that what you have been going through must give groly to God not to men.please if you are not rooted in christ!do.i can are a living testimony.