Phiona Mutesi

It was just another day in Uganda for the rest of the population, but for Robert Katende it was not. He had received his official letter for a government job, which he was waiting for months. Robert was happy. He had completed a degree in engineering and that came with its own benefits. A car, nice house in a good neighborhood for his lovely wife, good schooling for their future children, he was indeed hopeful. But life has its way of proving us wrong. The letter he received was not, for a job in engineering. ‘Calling for the post of Sports Instructor’, the letter had said. Sports instructor.  Sports? He knew nothing of sports, except for the occasional matches he has been to with his college friends. Then how was he supposed to teach sports?

The icing on the cake, the job was not in a lavish neighborhood. It was in the far end of the country, where poverty and hunger were the only permanent things. There were not enough schools or other facilities for children, no hospitals, not even enough food. People died like flies in those areas, he had heard.

Phiona Mutesi
Robert-Katende (thechessdrum.net)

Freshly out of the university and newly married, Robert did not have a lot of options. He could, of course, wait for another job, but it could take god knows how long. He now has a family to support. So, Robert finally decided on accepting the job.

Everything he had heard beforehand about the city of Katwe was true. It was indeed frightening. He had no choice. He had accepted and now, duty called. Robert prayed to God for support and started his first day of work.

The local school had a very limited amount of resources, but not enough students. Small children started school at a very young age and then dropped out with time. No one stayed long enough to graduate. They happen to have very fair excuses.

The school was expensive. Poor parents could hardly afford food. And on course, children were needed to do chores around the house. On Robert’s very first day, no one turned in. he walked around the neighbourhood and talked with children running around.

“hey son, I’m your new sports instructor, I can teach you football, why won’t you and your friends come join me after school?’ he asked from one hefty looking youngster. The boy considered the offer for a moment. “no can do sir, my mother would kill me if I did, football needs hands and feet, if I hurt them, where would we get the money for a doctor?”

“Well, there goes that”. Robert thought. The boy was right, he could not argue with that.

He went home his head held down. Spent whole night sleepless and thinking. By morning, he was ready to turn a new leaf.

“Kids, we are going to do something new. Instead of playing football, we are going to play a game of rich people” he introduced the game of Chess, to a set of kids in rural Uganda. To lure the kids in, he started giving away porridge for his students, out of his own pocket.

News travelled fast. Every kid in the area wanted to learn Chess. It required no feet or legs, you didn’t sweat or hurt your body, all you have to do is sit tight in one place and think. Then you got to control your own army! Plus you got to eat.

The children were mesmerized with the game. The board controlled every child’s fantasy. There was a queen, a king, castles and pawns, the knight could jump over other pieces! Even the almighty bishop could kill! He could only travel on diagonals but still, how great was that game!

Little Phiona Mutesi also heard the news. She wanted to learn how to play. With a dead father and a working daughter who was not around, and three kids to feed, Phiona’s mother could not afford such luxuries. Her father had died years ago of AIDS, and her sister was neck deep in prostitution. Phiona decided to sneak in. the class was free after all, it wouldn’t hurt her mother.

The very first moment she entered through the door, other kids started screaming. ” sir oh sir, she reeks!! We can’t be in here with a girl who smells so bad…” she was smelling. Robert did not stutter. He invited her in. gave a nice bowl of porridge. Phiona was starving. The porridge she got, was the tastiest meal she ever had.

From the next week onwards, 456 came cleaned and ready to learn.  Protests against her died soon enough, as she beat all her classmates to dust on the Chessboard. Robert saw that she had a very rare talent.

He wanted her to see the world, see what she can do with such talent. She was dedicated. Every day she walked 6 kilometres to play chess. She played aggressively and tactlessly in the beginning. She might have lost all her matches.

Then Robert taught her to play with tactfulness and patience. She started winning from there onwards. Robert taught her everything he knew, and by the age of 11, in 2007, she was Uganda’s National Junior Chess Champion. The journey from there was a rough ride.

Phiona Mutesi
Phiona Mutesi (berkeleychessschool.org)

Phiona’s  first ever time leaving Katwe was to play chess in Sudan. She was accompanied by two other members from Roberts’s chess team, who also participated representing Uganda in Africa’s International Chess Tournament in 2009. It was also her first flight, and the first time the plane ascended through a cloud, “is this heaven?” she wondered. Her team won the trophy in Sudan, defeating 16 other nations. She felt like a queen there. She had slept on her first bed, ordered her first meal and used a flushing toilet for the very first time. And when they returned to Katwe, they were greeted as conquering heroes.

In 2010, she flew to Russia for the most elite chess event of the world, Chess Olympiad. This turned out to be an amazing learning experience. After losing to an Egyptian Chess grandmaster, Phiona Mutesi took it upon herself to make becoming a chess grandmaster her life goal. Two years later, she earned the first women in Uganda to earn a Chess title, Women Candidate Master, in chess Olympiad in Istanbul. This is her first step in becoming a grandmaster.

From there onwards, her life became better. She graduated secondary school from a boarding school in Katwe and moved to US to achieve her dream in becoming Grandmaster. She graduated college from a US university and is inspiring young children all around the world to pursue their dreams.

Phiona Mutesi
Phiona Mutesi & Robert-Katende (Youtube.com)

A movie and a book, based on her life, named Queen of Katwe were released in 2016.

Once, she was asked whether she read the book or watched the movie. “No” she had said.

“I know how it is going to end”.

Cover Photo : wired.com

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  • In 2013, she again played in the National Junior Chess Championship in Uganda and reached the finals against Lutaaya Shafiq of Makerere University. She won the Under-20 Girls Category but not the Open Category.

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