Book Stop
5/23/14 at 04:37 PM 0 Comments

Ugandan Chess Champion Shares How the Game Blessed Her Life, Inspired Others

text size A A A
Book cover of The Queen of Katwe

(This article was originally posted in The Book Room - The Christian Post's new section for book enthusiasts and authors.)

WASHINGTON – During a recent a recent trip to a Washington, D.C. school, Phiona Mutesi, the subject of the 2013 book The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion, thanked God for the game that plucked her out of the Ugandan ghettos, gave her a second chance at life and has made her a source of hope to girls around the world.

She told the students and faculty members of the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools Tuesday “I thank God that he brought me chess because I got that opportunity of going back to school.”

Not only is the Ugandan teen back in school after her mother struggled for years to pay her tuition, but Phiona has caught the attention of the Bill and Malinda Gates foundation. The foundation paid Phiona’s airfare to fly to the United States and speak at its Seattle headquarters April 24. She is now touring schools, churches and local chess clubs sharing her inspirational story.

Before learning the game of chess, Phiona, 18, was just like many other children growing up in the Ugandan slums of Katwe – poor, hungry and a primary school dropout. Rodney Suddith, executive director Sports Outreach Institute, said of her condition, “Phiona had never slept in a bed, Phiona have never seen a toilet that flushed, she’d never turned on water and it worked.”

Now she is the reigning Uganda National Junior Chess Champion. She has returned to school through the Sports Outreach Institute and chess winnings have helped Phiona's family move out of the slums.

Phiona learned chess from Sports Outreach Missionary Robert Katende’s chess program. Sport Outreach Institute uses sports to bring schools and public health resources into poor communities throughout. Local athletes like Katende, a professional soccer player, teach the children how play and come together as a community.

Ketende lead soccer games in Katwe, but quickly realized the children needed an alternative game. “Having played chess in college, I realized that some of the children were not interested in soccer and most especially the girls in our country, they were not even allowed to play soccer because it is believed to be a boy’s game,” he said

Women and girls are among Uganda’s marginalized groups, Suddith told The Book Room. Girls in Ugandan’s slums often drop out of school, are preyed on by older men and become mothers at young ages, continuing the cycle of poverty that has plagued the war-torn country.

Phiona came to the Sports Outreach’s chess program as a 9-year-old. “She followed her brother there one day because she was hungry. We have a feeding program and feed thousands of kids everyday” Suddith recounted. “While she was there coach Robert made eye contact with her, invited her into the room and she was mesmerized, or just fascinated with the pieces.”

Since winning her first match against a male player in the program, Phiona has gone on to become Uganda’s premier chess player. She is a three-time Women’s Junior Champion of Uganda. In 2012, she earned the title of Woman Candidate Master at the 40th Chess Olympiad.

Phiona has also become an inspiration to many. Last year she addressed the Women in the World Summit. At Community Academy Public Charter Schools, she inspired fourth grader Nia Brinkley to be a good role model as the first female member of her school’s chess team.

“The coolest part of my chess experience has been being the first female chess player on my team. It is sometimes frustrating being the only girl, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to beat the boys” Nia told Phiona. “As the first girl on the team, I am honored to meet you.”

Phiona also hosts chess camps in Uganda in the hopes encouraging girls. She said “I don’t just teach chess to them, but I always talk to them just to bring hope to them because most of them have lost hope because our country always under look [sic] women and most of the time, men use girls. Like they impregnant [sic] them. At the age of 13 years, girls are always pregnant so that’s what I mainly do to bring hope to them."

CP Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of The Christian Post. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).