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Ugandan Girl is World Chess Prodigy

  in  ·
November 14, 2013

Phiona Mutesi was a muddy, desperate 9-year-old foraging for food in Uganda’s biggest slum, Katwe, when she discovered, through her older brother Brian, a chess program.

It was not pawns, rooks, bishops, knights or a king that drew her to a church verandah in Katwe, Kampala – it was what came with the lessons: a free bowl of porridge.

“We didn’t have food. We were sleeping on the streets because we didn’t have the money to rent a house. It was a hard time,” says Mutesi, 17, whose father died of AIDS when she was 3.

“The pieces looked attractive to me. I didn’t want to learn the game. That time I just wanted to get a cup of porridge.”

Mutesi was dirty and barefoot. The other children in the program, run by Robert Katende of Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian mission, told her to leave.

“I didn’t feel bad because that’s the life in Katwe,” she tells IPS news, speaking from the lounge in Katende’s house where she is currently staying. In the cabinet behind her, her trophies are piled high.

“If you don’t fight you can’t get it.”

Mutesi returned again and again to the chess program, but only for the free meal.

“That’s when I got to practice and I got better. Then I got an interest in chess,” she says.

“I like chess because it involves planning. The life I’ve been living, it also involved planning. When you’re living in a slum, you also have to plan ahead: how am I going to get food tomorrow?”

Chess had been introduced in this East African nation in the early 1970s by a group of doctors working at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, according to Christopher Turyahabwe, General Secretary of the Uganda Chess Federation.

“They thought it would bring back reasoning,” Turyahabwe tells IPS. “Later on it spread through the army to help them plan strategy.”

It was largely thanks to Father Damian Grimes, a former English principal who headed the progressive Namasagali College between 1967 and 2000, that the game was introduced into schools. Grimes started a Namasagali chess club, organizing tournaments with other schools.

“At first we only had two or three or four visiting schools,” Grimes tells IPS. “We could not persuade any girls to take part. Gradually, however, things developed and by the late 1970s and early 1980s it had gone up to something like 30 or more visiting teams including girls.”

A team consisted of four players and a school could send several teams to compete if they wanted. The competition became an annual chess festival, later named the Father Grimes Schools Tournament.

Little did Grimes know when it began that more than two decades on a girl from Katwe slum and her team would take the title five times in a row.

After winning her first Father Grimes Schools Tournament, Mutesi went to the 2009 International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan. Her first time outside Uganda. Her first time on a plane.

“Wow, I was so excited and couldn’t believe it, until we reached (our destination),” she recalls. “I thought we are near heaven.”

Since then, she has competed in two chess Olympiads in Siberia and Turkey. She was also named a Woman Candidate Master, the bottom-ranking title given by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, after last year’s event in Istanbul.

She recently spoke at the Women in the World summit in New York, attended by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey.

In the United States, Mutesi also played against her hero, grandmaster Garry Kasparov, one of the game’s greatest champions of the 20th century. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has reportedly asked to play her, and Disney is in the early stages of production of a movie on her life. One U.S. school has even started a tournament in her name.

Read the full article here.


Inter Press Service. From Slum Girl to World Chess Prodigy. Retrieved from:

Atlanta Black Star. Meet Phiona Mutesi – From Uganda Slum to World Chess Prodigy. Retrieved from:


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