Phiona Mutesi happened upon chess as a nine-year-old in the sprawling and impoverished Katwe slum of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Back in 2005, Mutesi discovered a chess program held in a church in the Katwe slum districts in Kampala. Potential players were enticed with a free cup of porridge, and Mutesi began organising her days around her visits to the church.
“It was so interesting,” she said of her introduction to pawns, rooks and kings in 2005. “But I didn’t go there for chess, I went just to get a meal.”
The young girl developed a talent for chess, which was introduced in Uganda in the 1970s by foreign doctors and is still seen as a game predominantly played by the rich.
“I like chess because it involves planning,” said Mutesi. “If you don’t plan, you will end up with a bad life.”
The film of Mutesi’s story, titled Queen of Katwe, is based on a book of the same name about Mutesi by American writer Tim Crothers. It is to be shot in Uganda and South Africa, directed by Mira Nair and produced by Disney. Filming is reported to begin in March.
Coach and mentor Robert Katende of the Sports Outreach Ministry remembers meeting Mutesi for the first time a decade ago: “She was really desperate for survival,” he said.
Katende is now building a chess academy to accommodate 150 students outside Kampala.
Phiona Mutesi, now 18, plays chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Phiona Mutesi, now 18, plays chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala. Photograph: Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images
Two years into the game, Mutesi became Uganda’s national women’s junior champion, retaining the title the following year.
“Phiona Mutesi has flourished,” said Vianney Luggya, president of the Uganda Chess Federation. “She made history in the schools’ competition by becoming the first girl to compete in the boys’ category. It was certainly surprising.”
She participated in her first big competition, Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament, in South Sudan in 2009. “It was really wonderful because it was my first time abroad,” she said. “It was my first time to sleep in a hotel. We came back with a trophy.”
Since then Mutesi has competed in chess Olympiads in Siberia, Turkey and Norway – after which she was given the Woman Candidate Master ranking by the World Chess Federation.
Overseas, Mutesi has also played against her hero, Russian former world champion and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, and inspired school students in the US to start a tournament in her name.
Back home, her fame has had “an incredible impact”, said Luggya.
“The number of female players participating in national chess championships has doubled,” he said, adding that each of the 26 schools set to compete in Uganda’s annual championships in April will have both female and male teams.
Uganda’s female players have also been spurred on by the success of Ivy Amoko, who became east Africa’s first World Chess Federation Master last year.
British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo – nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Martin Luther King in the 2014 drama Selma – is also rumoured to star in Queen of Katwe.
Luggya hopes the film will “open doors” for all players in Uganda, saying: “I think Ugandans realise that it is a brain game that can enhance their potential in all other aspects of life.”
Mutesi’s goal is to rise to the level of Grandmaster, the highest level a chess player can attain, but she also hopes to become a paediatrician and open a home for children, to help girls facing challenges similar to those from her own childhood.
“Girls are always overlooked, even in chess,” said Mutesi. “But I don’t think there’s any reason why a girl cannot beat a boy. It comes from believing in yourself.”