Ugandan Chess Prodigy Beats the Odds

Despite growing up in poverty, 16-year-old Phiona Mutesi is dominating chess competitions worldwide and dazzling people with her story.

Posted: 12/11/2012 01:33 PM EST
Ugandan Chess Prodigy Beats the Odds

Ugandan teen Phiona Mutesi had no idea what was in store for her the day she set out to get porridge from a local missionary who offered children food in exchange for chess lessons.  

"I was living a hard life, where I was sleeping on the streets, and you couldn't have anything to eat at the streets. So that's when I decided for my brother to get a cup of porridge,” Mutesi told CNN.

That porridge, given to her in 2005 by Robert Katende, a missionary and refugee of Uganda's civil war, would be the beginning of her chess career and unbelievable ascent from the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, to international competitions and recognition.

Now, at age 16, Mutesi is the subject of a biography, The Queen of Katwe, the rights of which have been reportedly optioned by Disney for adaptation to film.

"Chess gave me hope, whereby now I'm having a hope of becoming a doctor and ... a grand master," she said.

Mutesi’s father died from AIDS when she was just three years old, and the neighborhood she hails from is one of Kampala’s most destitute areas.

Biographer Tim Crothers writes that on a typical day, Mutesi must wake up at 5 a.m. to "begin a two-hour trek through Katwe to fill a jug with drinkable water, walking through lowland that is often so severely flooded by Uganda's torrential rains that many residents sleep in hammocks near their ceilings to avoid drowning.”

But Mutesi says she didn’t know life could be any other way.

"I thought the life I was living, that everyone was living that life," she told CNN about growing up in Katwe.

For now, Mutesi is traveling within the U.S. and promoting her biography in the hopes that her story can inspire young people — no matter what situation they were born into.

“I really hope I just continue to pray for them to get a better life, and I want them to be encouraged to work hard and not to lose hope,” she said while speaking to students in San Diego.

 

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(Photo: Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times/LANDOV)

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