Fol­low­ing the queen – Kam­pala’s chess clubs of­fer a path out of the slums

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JU­LIAN HATTEM

KATWE, Uganda: Seven­teenyear-old Richard Buy­inza stared at the chess­board in front of him, plot­ting what he hoped would be his killer move.

Around him in the cramped, dimly lit room, more than a dozen young­sters were hunched on wooden benches, equally in­tent on strat­egy.

Out­side, small rivers of run-off and sewage scarred the dirt al­ley, turned to mud from a re­cent rain.

The room was silent ex­cept for the tap­ping of plas­tic chess pieces be­ing moved. Fi­nally, Richard and his op­po­nent reached a stale­mate. With­out a word, they re­set their board and pre­pared for a new game.

Nearly ev­ery day for a decade, Richard has come to play chess in this room in a squat con­crete hous­ing block in Katwe, a crime-rid­den slum on the out­skirts of Kam­pala.

His com­pan­ion for much of that time was his older sis­ter, Phiona Mutesi, a chess prodigy whose story has been adapted for the Dis­ney film Queen of Katwe, which opened in South Africa yes­ter­day.

Chess trans­formed Mutesi’s life, tak­ing her from des­ti­tu­tion to for­eign cities and red-car­pet ap­pear­ances with movie stars.

Now 20, she has moved out of the slum into a board­ing school, where she is in her fi­nal year. She dreams of be­com­ing a pae­di­a­tri­cian.

The teenagers and younger chil­dren who show up here day af­ter day hope the game will change their lives, too.

“She gives courage to each and ev­ery young boy or girl you see there,” said Richard, who serves as a men­tor at the Katwe school, part of the Som Chess Academy.

It is a Chris­tian mis­sion pro­ject founded by Robert Ka­tende, played in Queen of Katwe by ac­tor David Oyelowo. Ka­tende fled Uganda’s civil war as a child and, as an adult, found a job with Sports Out­reach, a non-profit Vir­ginia-based group that uses sports to spread Chris­tian­ity.

He or­gan­ised soc­cer matches in Katwe and would of­fer his play­ers bowls of por­ridge af­ter­wards. To get chil­dren on the sidelines in­volved, he started teach­ing them chess.

None had heard of the game and many thought at first that he was telling them to play “chase. They were puz­zled when he pulled out a board and black and white plas­tic pieces.

Mutesi stum­bled upon the chess games 11 years ago when she tagged along af­ter an older brother, hop­ing for a bowl of por­ridge.

As the movie de­picts, she dis­cov­ered an in­nate tal­ent and went on to be­come one of the best play­ers in Uganda, ca­pa­ble of com­pet­ing on an in­ter­na­tional level.

The academy started in 2004 in a clap­board church down the road from its cur­rent home. Cen­tres have also been set up in four other Kam­pala slums, as well as in two com­mu­ni­ties in Uganda’s north and east.

Ev­ery day from noon to 5 pm, be­tween a dozen and 50 chil­dren gather at the Katwe school to play chess, gos­sip and lis­ten to preach­ing.

At the end of each day, “we gather to­gether and then we have some talk about life skills”, said Richard Tugume, a self-as­sured 24-year-old who has been com­ing to the chess games for 13 years and leads the daily ses­sions. “Then we share the word.”

The stu­dents come from ex­tremely im­pov­er­ished con­di­tions. They rarely have enough to eat. Some are or­phans or were aban­doned by their par­ents.

The chess academy of­fers them a daily meal, which was enough to at­tract Mutesi at first.

It pro­vides a safe space where par­ents can send their chil­dren with­out wor­ry­ing they’ll be ex­posed to crime or drugs. And it pays to put some of the young­sters through school, an im­pos­si­bil­ity for fam­i­lies that earn just a few dol­lars each week.

It also of­fers the dream of a path out of the slums.

Now, thanks to Phiona Mutesi, there is at least one model of a Ugan­dan rags-toriches story.

When Ka­tende first tried to sell the chil­dren on chess, “he talked of win­ning tro­phies”, Tugume said. “We had never won any tro­phy.”

Som’s chess play­ers match up against well-ed­u­cated, well­heeled pro­fes­sion­als, which can mean con­nec­tions to Uganda’s up­per crust.

“Ed­u­cated peo­ple, they play chess – like doc­tors,” said Richard Buy­inza, who also wants a ca­reer in medicine. “Most of the chess play­ers, they have been able to get jobs, be­cause they have com­peted with those guys in big posts.”

The first gen­er­a­tion of Som play­ers can at­test that the game has changed their lives, if not to the same ex­tent as Mutesi’s.

Many work for the min­istry as coaches and some are study­ing at nearby uni­ver­si­ties, an un­think­able leap for a slum young­ster just a few years ago.

Juliet Kirabo is a self­pos­sessed 12-year-old who plays at one of the newer chess cen­tres in Kawempe, a slightly more ru­ral slum north of Kam­pala.

Play­ing chess helped her fo­cus at school, she said. “It teaches me that you have to give sac­ri­fices and you have to be con­fi­dent.

“Like when you are mov­ing a piece, you have to be con­fi­dent that it is pro­tected.”

Mutesi’s suc­cess in­spired her to keep play­ing, she said: “I re­ally want to be like her.”

“I am like a pawn, be­cause I am still young,” added Zachariah Eki­rapa, a 17-year-old who also plays in Kawempe. “But I know that in the fu­ture I will be some­thing use­ful.”

The academy’s mem­ber­ship has ex­ploded in the wake of the Dis­ney film.

Di­rec­tor Mira Nair, best known for Mon­soon Wed­ding, runs a film school in Kam­pala. She lives there for part of the year with her Ugan­dan hus­band and made an ef­fort to in­cor­po­rate the city in her film.

Stars Oyelowo and Lupita Ny­ong’o, who plays Mutesi’s mother, came to Katwe last spring to film much of the movie, caus­ing a sen­sa­tion.

Many of the slum chil­dren were cast as ex­tras. Some of the chess play­ers got speak­ing roles and oth­ers helped with the crew.

Six­teen-year-old Mad­ina Nal­wanga, who plays Mutesi, grew up poor in Kam­pala and was dis­cov­ered in a dance class. Queen of Katwe is her first film.

Tugume, who helped with the cast­ing of lo­cal chil­dren, said he still got calls ask­ing whether there were roles that need fill­ing.

“It’s like ev­ery­one was changed,” he chuck­led. – Wash­ing­ton Post


Uganda’s Queen of Katwe got her start at this slum chess school.

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