‘Queen of Katwe’

stirs hope in slum where film was born

Kuwait Times - - WEEKENDER -

An Ugan­dan girl plays chess in the two-roomed Som Chess Acad­emy in the Katwe slum of Kam­pala, Uganda.

In a two-room shack in the heart of a Kam­pala slum, a bare­foot 5-year-old boy is be­ing taught how to move his pawns. He is one of scores of Ugan­dan chil­dren fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of a lo­cal girl who be­came a chess cham­pion and the sub­ject of a new Dis­ney film. “Queen of Katwe” is set in this sprawl­ing shan­ty­town that un­til re­cently was only known to Ugan­dans for its high crime rate.

The movie shines a more flat­ter­ing light on Katwe and the in­for­mal chess acad­emy that nur­tured the prodigy, Phiona Mutesi. The story is a source of im­mense pride for the stig­ma­tized neigh­bor­hood in Uganda’s cap­i­tal, say some who have seen the film. “The film ... has the faces I know,” said Bar­bara Nas­sozi, a science teacher at a Katwe school where some scenes were filmed. “Peo­ple have liked it so much. It has brought an im­pact in the area. Katwe is now known in the whole world.” “Queen of Katwe” fol­lows the rise of Mutesi as a chess player amid grind­ing poverty, with her sin­gle mother barely able to sup­port her and her two sib­lings. Af­ter Mutesi’s brother is hit by a speed­ing mo­tor­cy­cle and hos­pi­tal­ized, the mother, played by Kenyan ac­tress Lupita Ny­ong’o, stealth­ily pulls the boy from his hos­pi­tal bed be­cause she is not able to pay the bill.

Mutesi falls un­der the spell of an unas­sum­ing chess teacher, played by Bri­tish ac­tor David Oyelowo, who en­cour­ages the teenager to learn the game de­spite the skep­ti­cism of her mother, who warns her not to dream big be­cause “you will be dis­ap­pointed.” Mutesi goes on to win a lo­cal cham­pi­onship, com­pete at events abroad and earn enough money to buy a house for her mother. The film’s pathos will be fa­mil­iar to those who have lived in Katwe, where poverty drives young peo­ple to de­spair, if not vi­o­lent crime. Streams of raw ef­flu­ent fol­low foot­paths. The grade school where some scenes were filmed is makeshift wood struc­tures in the dirt. Young men wash cars for a liv­ing.

The Som Chess Acad­emy is an un­ex­pected oa­sis of hope in the down­trod­den com­mu­nity. “Chess is like a brain booster,” one of its stu­dents, 11-year-old Ly­dia Nakaweesa, said shyly. “It is good for math­e­mat­ics. That is why I come here.” She had been forced to miss school for a few weeks be­cause she lacked tu­ition, she said, but the chess acad­emy is free. Robert Ka­tende, who started the acad­emy in 2004 and be­came Mutesi’s men­tor, now has chess acad­e­mies in other Kam­pala slums, with for­mer stu­dents act­ing as in­struc­tors when he is not avail­able.

Many chil­dren have been knock­ing on his door fol­low­ing the re­lease of “Queen of Katwe,” Ka­tende said. “Chess, I can say, is very im­por­tant be­cause it has given the chil­dren and the com­mu­nity a plat­form that they didn’t have be­fore,” he said. “They would not have any way out of the slums, but they have been able, through chess, to travel, to go for events, to go to dif­fer­ent places.” Of Mutesi, who now at­tends board­ing school and is a can­di­date for col­lege, he said: “There is some­thing spe­cial about Phiona be­cause, first and fore­most, she is a girl . ... She’s also worked hard and be­lieved in her­self and taken all the guid­ance and coun­sel given to her.” The film has re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able re­views in Uganda, where it pre­miered ear­lier this month at a red-car­pet event in which Ugan­dans, many of whom had never acted be­fore, shared the lime­light with stars like Acad­emy Award win­ner Ny­ong’o.

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