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Ugandan Chess Prodigy Shares Life Lessons in Santa Barbara

At Providence Hall, 16-year-old Phiona Mutesi tells her inspiring story of mastering the game and overcoming challenges

By Melissa Walker, Noozhawk Contributing Writer | @NoozhawkNews |

By all accounts, Phiona Mutesi has found sanctuary on a chess board that has taken the 16-year-old far away from the slums of Katwe, Uganda.

She has traveled across the globe, and last week paid a visit to Santa Barbara, where the chess prodigy spoke to a room full of admirers at Providence Hall, the Christian college-preparatory school at 600 E. Canon Perdido.

Chess has taught Mutesi to never lose hope, and she views the chessboard as her life and the right moves that she makes as the “hand of God.”

“Anything you desire to do — chess or something else — be diligent,” said Mutesi. “You never know; that could be one thing God uses to change your life.”

Mutesi had never heard of chess when she first came across the game, but she said she “liked how the pieces looked.”

Her success in the game has allowed her to beat the odds from an upbringing in the slums to become the first female player to win the open category of the Ugandan National Junior Chess Championship, held in 2007. She has since gone on to win the title three years in a row, becoming the youngest person ever to win the African chess championship.

She might have won a fourth consecutive title but the Uganda Chess Federation did not have the funds to stage a competition that year. This year, she earned the title of Woman Candidate Master at the 40th Chess Olympiad held in Istanbul, Turkey.

For Mutesi, chess, like life, is a game of intelligence, skill, courage and survival, especially when you live in a village where women are valued for little more than sex and child care, and 50 percent of teen girls are mothers by the age of 13.

“It’s hard for young girls in Katwe, and there is not much hope for a good future; many of them get raped,” said Mutesi, who embodies the determination and instincts that helped her to win her first chess match and climb out of the slums.

Phiona Mutesi, left, and coach Robert Katende speak to students at Providence Hall. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)
Phiona Mutesi, left, and coach Robert Katende speak to students at Providence Hall. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

In 2005, a hungry Mutesi arrived at a missionary church where Robert Katende, her current coach and mentor, was teaching locals to play chess in exchange for a cup of porridge.

Mutesi was 9 years old and living on the streets with her family when she secretly followed her older brother, Brian, through the filth and muddy roads to the ramshackle church.

Her hope was that her brother might lead her to the single meal of the day needed to feed her mother, Harriet; another brother, Richard; and her 6-year old niece, Winnie. Instead, the day led to a whole new direction in her life.

Mutesi was fascinated by the chess matches and watched as her brother played a game so foreign to her that there wasn’t even a word to pronounce “chess” in her native language, Luanda.

“When I fist saw the game I wanted to get close to the chess pieces, but the children in the program wouldn’t allow me to because I was very, very dirty,” said Mutesi. “They told me to go away and I did, but the next day I went back and that’s when I met Robert. He welcomed me into the program and assigned me to a very young girl — she was about 5 years old — to teach me what she knew about the game.

“That first day I was able to get the cup of porridge I was yearning for. My interest of chess came later.”

Like many young girls who live in the village of Katwe, the largest of eight slums in Kampala, Mutesi’s early childhood years were filled with tragedy and loss. She doesn’t even know her exact birthday.

Her father died of AIDS when she was 3 years old, and three weeks later her older sister, Juliet, complained of headaches and died in her sleep from an unknown illness. At age 6, Mutesi dropped out of school not long after she started because her family couldn’t afford the school fees. She nearly died of malaria when she was 8.

Mutesi’s experiences have forged a remarkable story of struggle, determination and triumph that Providence Hall presented to students, supporters and chess enthusiasts Friday. Her visit even included a challenge to friendly games of chess.

A Christian youth ministry program run by the Sports Outreach Institute sponsored her visit to Santa Barbara. The nonprofit organization, founded by former Westmont College professor and soccer coach Russ Carr, trains and equips committed Christians on the proper use of sports ministry and the alleviation of human suffering with missions serving the poor in slums around the world.

In 2003, the institute recruited 14 Christian athletes from Uganda to form the Good News Football Club using sports — specifically soccer — as a social platform to build communities, form relationships and share the gospel with children living in slums in Uganda.

Katende was one of four SOI evangelists commissioned to minister at the church in Katwe. He noticed that some of the children didn’t like soccer so he brought a chessboard to a class as an alternative. The kids began to socialize and compete against each other and their academic performance improved.

“Today is a tremendous opportunity for our students,” said David O’Neil, Providence Hall’s head of school. “One of the things we talk with them about is becoming people of character and people of virtue, and the kids got to see somebody who lives that out.

“You try to draw parallels between her life and our life, and it’s hard to do it,” he added. “But I think at the center teenagers are broken and they are hurting. There are different things going on in their lives but they are all individuals, and I think Phiona today brought a message that you can’t be without hope. You need to persevere.

“You need to commit to what God put in front of you and do it well, and he’s going bless those efforts.”

Once a shy and insecure girl, chess has transformed Mutesi into a confident and fierce competitor. She received the Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship Fund, a tuition scholarship from the Sports Outreach Institute, and now attends high school.

“Chess has allowed me to travel and go to school,” said Mutesi. “Education is very important to me. In the future I want to be a doctor.”

Mutesi said her family has purchased a plot of land to build a home away from the slums of Katwe, and plans to move out in January.

A book, titled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, was published earlier this year, and Disney has optioned the rights to the book for a movie based on Mutesi’s life.

“This young lady has showed us what hope means and how to live that out,” said O’Neil. “I think we can all use a little more of that in our lives.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Melissa Walker can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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