“I have a story for you.”
Six words guaranteed to pique the curiosity of any enterprising journalist, they presented a storyline to sports journalist Tim Crothers that would lure him around the world and into the heart of an African slum, where he would meet a true underdog and begin to tell her story.
Her name was Phiona Mutesi, the man told Crothers, and she was rapidly becoming a formidable contender in the chess world. Mutesi had done so as a largely self-taught player. On top of that, the Ugandan girl was only 14 and lived in some of the most abject slums imaginable.
Crothers was intrigued, and learned that the group supporting Phiona was Sports Outreach International, a Christian nonprofit that reaches out to the poorest of the poor with sports ministry while helping to support their basic needs.
The group welcomed children living in the slums of Katwe, in Uganda’s capital city, into the walls of a ramshackle church for a meal. They also taught them how to play chess, a skill that Phiona learned at age 9 under the group’s tutelage and at which she soon became adept.
By the time she was 11, Phiona was her country’s junior chess champion, and at 15, Uganda’s national champion. She has competed in several world championships since then, and is quickly moving toward her dream of becoming a grandmaster, the highest title in chess.
Mutesi and her coach, Robert Katende, another child of the Ugandan slums, are the subject of Crothers’ book documenting her life, titled The Queen of Katwe. The book was released Tuesday, and Crothers is in Santa Barbara this week to promote his new work.
To be a child in the slums of Katwe is to be preoccupied with survival, so the meal served by Sports Outreach staff and the chess lessons are a welcome haven, Crothers said.
“It is the one moment of happiness they can count on,” he said. “Then they are turned back out into the slum.”
Phiona’s competitive spirit has been given an outlet through chess in large part because of another competitor she’ll never have the chance to meet. Funding for the chess training and schooling for Phiona and more than 900 other students like her in Uganda and Kenya comes from the Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Popp was a San Marcos High School graduate and star athlete when news of his suicide shocked the community in 2005. His family started the memorial fund in his memory, and his mother, Tricia, spoke with Noozhawk about what it has meant for the family to help further the lives of young people, even while they still deal with the loss of Andrew.
“Our own son lost hope but now many others’ children are getting a chance to hope,” she said. “The fact these children are getting the chance our son was unable to take for his life does not address the hole in our hearts but does add a bit of joy in the midst of the sorrow. Our desire is to demonstrate and offer resources so that these children know every life is worth living and there is hope to be had.”
Crothers said that Phiona is now 16 years old — no one knows for sure because she doesn’t have a birth certificate, like many of the children in Katwe — and has about four more years in secondary school before she’ll be eligible for university.
In the meantime, she’s the first female player in Ugandan history to be a titled chess player.
“She’s been dealt every bad card in the deck and she’s still overcome that,” Crothers said. “That’s what so extraordinary.”
Crothers will be speaking and signing the book from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday in Westmont College’s campus lecture hall. From 5 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, he’ll also hold a book signing at Savoy Cafe & Deli, 24 W. Figueroa St. The books will also be for sale to the public Sunday at Santa Barbara Community Church, 1002 Cieneguitas Road, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.