11 July 2011

Uganda: Slum Girl Stuns Chess Elite

Against all the odds, Phionah Mutesi has become Uganda's best female chess player at just 15, breaking free of the issues that afflict thousands of girls in the Katwe slum. Her talent for chess has gained her access to a boarding school and the opportunity to travel abroad to represent Uganda.

Phionah Mutesi is full of energy in spite of having woken up at 4am. With twenty other students she is practicing chess in the dining hall of the St. Mbuga Secondary School.

"Chess surprised me," says Mutesi. "It is a nice game that can help you with learning mathematics. It also opened up chances for me, like visiting other countries." Phionah and her friends have one hour to practice before hundreds of students flood into the dining hall.

The long days in boarding school seem tough, but Phionah is happy to be here. "You cannot come late and we get plenty of time to revise," she says. Children here escape family members asking them to do chores around the house. "Our home used to flood when there was heavy rain," says the softly spoken girl. Life at St. Mbuga Secondary School seems like paradise compared to the poor living conditions she experienced at home, where her mother tries to make ends meet as a market vendor. Phionah's father died of AIDS.

Teaching chess to children

If Phionah wants something, she usually gets it. One day she followed her older brother when he went to play chess. "She refused to be sent home and started practicing chess at the age of ten," says her coach Robert Katende who has been teaching chess to children in Katwe for seven years. After heated debates he managed to get teams of children from the slum into the same tournaments as children attending elite schools. Although they have no books or digital chess programs, his students beat the elite kids and were sent to South-Sudan for a youth tournament. "Phionah is an exceptional talent," says Katende. "She and the two boys came back from Sudan without losing a game."

After the tournament in South Sudan, Phionah needed stronger competition than her peers could offer. She enrolled in a qualifier for the International biannual Olympiad tournament in Siberia, Russia. "To everybody's surprise she made it in the Ugandan team and we stayed in Russia for more than two weeks," Katende recalls.

First trans-continental flight

"I was nervous," Phionah admits who had embarked on her first trans-continental flight before staying in hotels she could never dream of together with a Dutch TV-crew that trailed her for the entire journey. She lost four games, drew two and won another.

"After returning from Russia I became [female] champion of Uganda," she says smiling. This victory was sweeter than all the previous ones, since it won her a prize of half a million shillings (150 euro). "My mother couldn't believe it. We used the money to buy beds and mattresses, so we don't have to sleep on the floor anymore!"

Training is currently underway for the next Olympiad, to be held in 2012, which Phionah combines studies. "I just started senior one, and I am doing well. In the future I want to become a doctor."

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