“PHIONA MUTESI IS the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.
Phiona and her family have relocated inside Katwe six times in four years, once because all of their possessions were stolen, another time because their hut was crumbling. The contents of Phiona’s home are: two water jugs, wash bin, small charcoal stove, teapot, a few plates and cups, toothbrush, tiny mirror, Bible and two musty mattresses.” [espn sports]
Phiona Mutesi is a 15 year old Ugandan chess player. She is not certain when she was born. She grew up in the Ugandan slum of Katwe, one of the poorest places in Africa; when Phiona was about three her father died of AIDS and shortly afterwards her older sister Juliet died of an unknown cause.
When Phiona was about nine, and had already dropped out of school as her family could not afford to pay her fees, she stumbled upon a chess program run by the Sports Outreach Institute, [a Christian non-profit Organisation that reaches out to the poorest of the poor with its sports ministry while helping to support their basic needs] which taught her how to play chess.
After initial resistance from the Chess Federation, which had insisted that the national junior championships were for schoolchildren, but not “children from the streets”, her coach, Robert Katende was allowed to enter his slum team from Katwe in 2005. From the age of nine, Phiona Mutesi started blazing a trail in the chess world that gave her the opportunity to leave her sewage filled slum, and discover the finer things of life.
In 2010 she played on board 2 for Uganda at the 39th Chess Olympiad and as of 2011 she was a three-time Women’s Junior Champion of Uganda. In 2012, Phiona and Ivy Amoko earned Woman Candidate Master (WCM) titles as a result of their performances at the 40th Chess Olympiad which held from the 27th of August to the 10th of September at Istanbul, Turkey, making them the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history. Phiona also became the first female player to win the open category of the National Junior Chess Championship in Uganda. She is also the youngest person ever to win the African chess championship.
Did I forget to add that Phiona has just finished Primary School and is still learning to read? Yet here she is, battling against some of the world’s greatest intellectuals and strategists, and winning too. She is swiftly moving closer to her goal of becoming a Grandmaster- the highest title in Chess.
Sports journalist Tim Crothers has written a book about her titled “the Queen of Katwe” in which he chronicles her struggles and triumphs.
Are you inspired? You should be; not only in ensuring that you are the best at what you do, but in creating opportunities for others to blossom. Kudos to the Sport Outreach Institute; by reaching out, they became the pedestal on which Phiona was thrust into fame. We hope that she will be liberated from the slums of Katwe. How can we proactively change our world for good? What can you do today?