Her lessons in chess were also lessons in life

Phiona Mutesi’s rise from slums to chess wizard is very like Uganda — al­ways sur­viv­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - THOMAS FROESE Thomas Froese writes about news, travel and life. Find him at www.thomas­froese.com Watch a short video of Phiona at www.queenofkatwe.com/phiona-mutesi/

KAMPALA, UGANDA — I’m not one to see a mir­a­cle around ev­ery cor­ner. If things worked that way, the real deal would get aw­fully cheap.

But I got a hair­cut the other day. The gen­tle­man cut­ting my hair — he in­formed me his name was Maxwell — said it was a mir­a­cle. Not my hair­cut. My ques­tion.

“Have you seen Queen of Katwe?” I’d asked. “I’m read­ing the book,” I said. It sat be­side me. And off Maxwell went with his talk of mir­a­cles.

Turns out he cuts hair for Mad­ina Nal­wanga. She’s the Ugan­dan teen who plays Phiona Mutesi in Queen of Katwe. Maxwell pulled out pho­tos of him and the ac­tress, ba­nana trees be­hind them.

The co­in­ci­dence ex­cited him so much, I thought he’d butcher my hair. Katwe is a Kampala slum. A Marx­ist would call it a work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood, a cen­tre of metal fab­ri­ca­tion. But it’s a slum. Garbage flies in the wind over open sew­ers and open crime and list­less shacks like the Agapé Sanc­tu­ary. That’s a church.

One day when she was nine, the real-life Phiona walked into the church. She was look­ing for food. In­stead she found the world. And her true self.

Tim Crothers, a former Sports Il­lus­trated writer, first told the story. The movie fol­lowed. Lupita Ny­ong’o, the Kenyan ac­tress of 12 Years a Slave f ame, stars as Phiona’s mother.

Watch the movie for a few min­utes and you’ll learn more about Uganda than from all I’ve shared dur­ing my years of writ­ing from here.

It had Os­car buzz at Toronto’s in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­val, but the Academy re­cently by­passed it for nom­i­na­tion. Dis­ap­point­ing. Then again, can even a hill of gold stat­ues com­pare to a sin­gle life re­born?

This is the ap­peal of this story. Its real life eclipses its reel life.

Be­fore Phiona walked into Agapé Sanctu- ary, she was il­lit­er­ate. Like 75 mil­lion girls in the de­vel­op­ing world, she was out of school, des­tined for, if noth­ing else, early moth­er­hood. Her own mother, who sold veg­eta­bles on the street, couldn’t make ends meet. Her fa­ther was dead of AIDS. The fam­ily had even lost its tiny ram­shackle home.

Now, be­sides be­ing Uganda’s na­tional chess cham­pion, Phiona is fin­ish­ing stud­ies at a fine Kampala high school. Now she dreams of be­com­ing a chess grand­mas­ter and a doc­tor. (The Ugan­dan univer­sity where I live and teach would do well to re­cruit her.) Now, from her chess win­nings, she’s bought her mother a home.

Be­fore she walked into Agapé, Phiona slept on a hope­less mat­tress in Katwe’s low­ly­ing swamp­land, pray­ing Uganda’s rains wouldn’t flood her. Now she’s sat atop Man­hat­tan’s Em­pire Ho­tel play­ing chess against former world cham­pion Garry Kas­parov.

Be­fore she walked into Agapé, a hand­ful of kids played chess in­side. Robert Ka­tende, a so-called bas­tard child and war refugee with his own story, taught them un­der the spon­sor­ship of the Amer­i­can mis­sion Sports Out­reach. Now, at Sports Out­reach’s new Kampala cen­tre, 300 Ugan­dan kids learn chess. Phiona teaches.

Chess is this story’s heart­beat. So is sur­vival. But in chess, com­mon bar­ri­ers dis­ap­pear. There is no race. Or class. Or gen­der. Or age. Or ed­u­ca­tion. In chess, a pawn, in time, can move down the board to be­come a queen.

This is Phiona’s ex­pe­ri­ence. Just five years af­ter walk­ing into Agapé, she was fly­ing to in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments and see­ing a world most Ugan­dans won’t imag­ine for 100 years.

Her lessons for chess are lessons for life as much as any­thing. Sure this world will try to beat you. So be­lieve in your­self. Chal­lenge your­self. Don’t get too ex­cited. And don’t get too dis­cour­aged ei­ther. Be pa­tient. Have a dream.

With­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity, it all hinges on love.

This is what the word “agapé ” means. It’s the Greek word for a cer­tain love that, in fact, none of us know. Not re­ally. Not fully. Not in this time and place. Be­cause it’s not of this world.

It’s hard to ex­plain when some­thing so pow­er­ful comes from noth­ing. But in that Kampala slum, this is what hap­pened, “some­how,” as Ugan­dans are so fond of say­ing. As Phiona later ex­plained, “I learned about chess. And I learned about God.” Mir­a­cles, I sup­pose, aren’t made of things much dif­fer­ent.

ED­WARD ECHWALU, WALT DIS­NEY PICTURES

Ugan­dan ac­tress Mad­ina Nal­wanga as Phiona Mutesi in the movie Queen of Katwe. The film ex­plores the true story of Mutesi’s un­likely rise from a girl in a Kampala slum to be­come a world-class chess player, all while still a teenager. Colum­nist Thomas Froese says a few min­utes of the movie tells more about Uganda than all his years of writ­ing from the African coun­try.

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