The trailer for the latest sports biopic is out. Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, on Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga in the lead role. The September 30 release, which has been produced by Disney, is an adaptation of ESPN journalist Tim Crothers’s biography The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. If you’re wondering why an Indian filmmaker, a Kenyan-Mexican actress and an American juggernaut of a production house are collaborating for a biopic about a Ugandan chess player who is not even a Grand Master, it is because Phiona Mutesi’s story is perhaps like no other in the world of chess.
In a 2011 profile, Crothers described the rarity of Mutesi, a three-time junior girls’ champion of Uganda and a regular Ugandan team member in the Chess Olympiads. “Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog,” he wrote. “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”.
Almost 38% of Uganda lived on less than $1.25/day in 2012. Katwe is one of the poorest areas in the capital Kampala. The people of Katwe mostly live in slums, where young men and women with little education or skills are reduced to crimes such as prostitution, theft, armed robbery, and murder owing to unemployment, rampant drug-abuse and deeply entrenched poverty. The result is a society in which 50% of teenage girls of Mutesi’s age are mothers – a far cry from the kind of life Mutesi has led, pursuing a sport so rare in her land that the Ugandan language doesn’t even have a word for it.
That is not to say Mutesi’s life remained untouched from the harsh realities of her neighbourhood. She was said to have been born in 1993 (she is not sure of the exact year). When Mutesi was three, she lost her father to AIDS, and shortly after that, her elder sister died due to unknown causes. Mutesi joined a chess programme run by the Sports Outreach Institute at the age of nine not for love of the game, but, in her words, “just to get a meal”. The programme, run from a ramshackle church that “could fall anytime” as Crothers described it in 2011, enticed players with a free cup of porridge. The meal motivated Mutesi to schedule her days around the church visits at a time when her current coach and mentor, Robert Katende, described her as “desperate for survival”.
Of Mutesi’s everyday life, Crothers wrote in 2013: “She wakes at 5 each morning to begin a two-hour trek through Katwe to fill a jug with drinkable water, walking through lowland that is often so severely flooded by Uganda's torrential rains that many residents sleep in hammocks near their ceilings to avoid drowning. There are no sewers, and the human waste from downtown Kampala is dumped directly into the slum. There is no sanitation. Flies are everywhere. The stench is appalling.”
Ever since she has come into the spotlight, Mutesi’s life’s standards have improved, as has Uganda’s economy and Katwe’s relative misery, but Crothers’s description still rings pretty true of the slum.
Regardless of the odds, Mutesi displayed a remarkable talent for chess soon after joining the programme. “I like chess because it involves planning” she said in an interview in The Guardian. “If you don’t plan, you end up with a bad life.”
At the Sports Outreach Institute, quick games were played on dilapidated boards until Mutesi’s growing popularity brought the attention that resulted in the purchase of new boards. Even so, the aggressive style she acquired during her days of “quick” chess still define her as a player.
The year 2011 notched up many firsts for Mutesi – her first Olympiad visit (to Serbia), glimpse of ice, plane ride and laser show. Since then, Mutesi’s experiences have grown, but the fundamentals of her rarity in a game invented, played and dominated by the rich remains the same.
“Phiona Mutesi has flourished,” Vianney Luggya, president of the Uganda Chess Federation after Phiona’s second Juniors title, said in the Guardian. interview. “She made history in the schools’ competition by becoming the first girl to compete in the boys’ category. It was certainly surprising.” Mutesi also played her idol Garry Kasparov, and inspired a competition in her name in the United States of America.
Inspiring a generation
While a tournament in the US is named after a Ugandan player itself speaks volumes of her impact on the game, it is by no means the true yardstick of what Mutesi has inspired. The number of female players participating in national chess championships has doubled in Uganda since Mutesi’s success, leading not only to the discovery of more talent such as Ivy Amoko – East Africa’s first FIDE Master – but also the arrival of a semblance of equality between male and female players in all chess-playing districts of Uganda.
Back home in Katwe, Phiona’s success has been an inspiration. There are now 1,400 students in the chess programme across five slum centres in Kampala, according to SOI. Katende has also been training 36 teachers to bring chess teaching to Kenya.
“The kids face a very imminent threat of being lured to gangs and vice and chess opens their minds,” Amanda Suddith said in a post on the website QueenofKatwe.com. In these circumstances, Phiona Mutesi’s success presents an alternative to the youth of Uganda. With some luck, the Queen of Katwe’s march will earn her country many more knights going forward.