When Uganda’s junior chess champion Phiona Mutesi met with students at Westchester and Fairfield County schools it was to do more than share a few pointers with the chess team. She and her coach, Robert Katende shared their inspiring stories of how chess, education and determination came together to create an amazing life transformation.
Phiona was born in the Katwe slum outside of Kampala, a place where “human waste is dumped and when it rains many people’s homes are flooded and they die. There are many diseases,” she told over 470 lower and middle school students at Greenwich Academy. The all-girls school was the first stop on their 5-day visit to Westchester and Fairfield Counties.
At the age of 6, Phiona, her mother and 2 brothers started living on the streets. An older sister was already pregnant by 14 and raising children of her own. Seeking a bowl of porridge, she came to a chess program run by Katende, a Sports Outreach missionary who had also grown up in the slums. He had made it out as a great soccer player, gone on to university earning a degree in civil engineering but felt compelled to go back to help the young people left behind.
First coming only for the porridge, unable to read or write, Phiona quickly learned chess, a game she had never seen before, and went on to win several tournaments including the Africa Junior Chess Championship. In 2010 she was the youngest player in the chess Olympiad held in Russia. She has since represented her country in Istanbul and will compete in the 2014 Olympiad this summer in Norway.
“When did you first know you were good at chess?” a Greenwich Academy student asked.
“When I beat a boy,” Phiona replied. “He started to cry and he never came back to the program.”
Coach Katende explained that in the Uganda slums all girls are supposed to do is have children. “Women are marginalized in the society. They don’t go to school, they are not allowed to play sports. So for him to lose to a girl was very humiliating.”
Katende went on to explain how Phiona’s success has made her a role model and how she is giving back to her community. Phiona received an award at the 2013 Women in the World Summit and was able to pay her own school fees for the year as well as to set aside funds for her family. In December she used a portion to host a 5-day chess clinic for girls from the 5 slum areas around Kampala. The funds provided were to cover the costs for 200 girls; they had 460 attend!
“How do you prepare for a tournament,” asked another G.A. student.
“Right now I don’t because of my school.” Phiona, now 18, attends a boarding school in Kampala and she told the G.A. students her school day starts at 7:30 in the morning and goes until 10 p.m. six days a week. “On Sunday I do laundry.” When asked, the G.A. students opted not to match her schedule!
Master of Ceremonies for the assembly was G.A. student and chess player Hunter Korn whose family hosted Phiona, her coach and the Sports Outreach team while they were in the Greenwich area. Later the Korn family hosted a small reception at their home where Hunter presented Coach Robert with a check for $15,000 which she raised by asking for donations instead of gifts for her bat mitzvah.
“While reading the book The Queen of Katwe about the life of Phiona Mutesi, I was inspired by Phiona's determination to improve her life in the slums of Uganda and the hardships and challenges that she had to overcome,” Hunter said. “When I heard about the chess school that she was seeking to build, I thought it was a great opportunity to help impact the lives of other kids like Phiona.” Hunter plans to stay involved with NSCF and Sports Outreach in order to continue to act as an Ambassador for the chess school and help coordinate more fundraising activities and interactions with the students.
The Greenwich Academy visit was part of a 33-day tour across America that is raising funds for US programs as well as helping to build a chess academy that will be part of a new education center being constructed in Kampala.
Other local appearances included Richard J. Bailey school in Greenburgh where Phiona and coach Robert spoke to over 400 students in a general assembly then stayed behind to play with the chess club. Phiona made the opening move for the NSCF Grand Prix tournament at Mamaroneck Avenue School in White Plains and spoke to all the 6th graders at Bronxville Middle School.
The time in Westchester was not all work. NSCF board member Betsy Harding made sure there was time for some sight-seeing and a Yankees game while executive director Sunil Weeramantry was able to squeeze in a couple of hours for a chess lesson.
For more information about Phiona, coach Katende and the Sports Outreach chess programs, visit www.queenofkatwe.com
For information on chess in education programs in Westchester and Fairfield Counties, click here.