Her lessons in chess are lessons in life

February 11, 2017

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 11, 2017)

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 co-incidence excited him so much, I thought he’d butcher my hair.

Katwe is a Kampala slum. A Marxist would call it a working-class neighborhood, a center 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 it. 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 fame, 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 Sanctuary, 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 low-lying 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 center, 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.


Watch a brief video of Phiona Mutesi

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February 11, 2017 • Posted in ,
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