Ugandan Chess Star Barnstorms U.S.
Haven't heard of Phiona Mutesi? You will soon. The most famous player in the history of Ugandan chess is coming to America, and perhaps to the silver screen.
A member of Ugandan Women's Olympiad team, Mutesi was featured in an article in "ESPN the Magazine" and then in a full-length book by Tim Crothers. "The Queen of Katwe" chronicled her rise from the slums of Kampala to her first trip on an airplane - to Siberia for the 2010 Olympiad. More superlatives follow: the opening ceremony, held on a skating rink, was the first time she had seen ice.
On Thursday, Mutesi began a cross-country tour across the United States. She'll be speaking at various events in an effort to raise awareness and money for a chess center to be built near her native village.
WCM Phiona Mutesi (far left) and her coach, Robert Katende, on KATU in Portland, Oregon
Mutesi's trip didn't start small. After a few events in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday she attended three events and spoke at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The Gateses sponsored her airfare and reportedly Bill Gates "challenged" her to a game when he learned of her during a previous trip to the U.S. in April, 2013.
The entire tour will cover nine states and the District of Columbia over 32 days. You can see upcoming events here.
According to Robert McLellan, Director of Communications and Development at the National Scholastic Chess Foundation, the goal is to raise $200,000 to build this building, which will be part of a larger Sports Outreach Ministry complex in the Ugandan capital. The entire educational complex is expected to cost $2 million (it is the same organization whose outreach in Katwe introduced Mutesi to chess).
McLellan became inspired to help after picking up her book. "I took it, I read it, and I went, 'This is really profound,'" he said. McLellan is focused on the larger message of what Mutesi's story says about chess and women in Africa.
"The subtitle of the book is highly unlikely," he said about "The Queen of Katwe's" claim that her dream is to become a grandmaster (she earned her Women's Candidate Master title at the 2010 Olympiad and her FIDE is 1648). Instead, his interest focuses how impactful her story can be for youth in the U.S. "What can it can do for a poor kid in America, who has no inkling of poverty like they have in Africa?"
On Tuesday, the tour makes a stop in Los Angeles for meetings with Disney. According to McLellan, they have already bought the rights to her story.
From there, she'll make her way East, with stops ranging from local churches to chess tournaments at all-girls schools. McLellan said she will turn 18 during her trip, even though FIDE lists her birth year as 1993.
Robert Katende, her longtime coach and the Director of Sports Outreach Ministry (headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia), is accompanying her on the tour. He said the facility they are attempting to build will "serve the entire East Africa region." It is designed to host tournaments up to 300 players and become a regional hub for chess education.
Unlike a previous trip to the U.S. in support of the book, he said, "Her English has also improved that she can speak without an interpeter for most of the conversation." He also hopes that she will get some training; she's already been selected for the Olympiad in Norway this August.
Her second trip to the U.S. was last year. She was awarded a $25,000 grant by the Women of the World Summit, which she partially used to host a two-day summit for female chess players. The enterprise hoped to get 50 girls and women, instead more than 400 showed up.
Katende said he would be nervous if he got to meet Bill Gates in person, though he noted that such a game would be quite a financial discrepancy between the combatants. "People of two different worlds economically, meeting at the chess board!" he said. (The event at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was closed and Chess.com could not verify if the Gateses attended or played a game with Mutesi.)
To further show how far apart the financial Venn diagrams of such a meeting: according to Forbes, Bill Gates is the world's richest man at $77.2 billion, which is almost exactly four times the GDP of all of Uganda.
Speaking to Chess.com before her trip, Mutesi said she would be "looking forward to meeting Billy Gates."
After it is all over, she's not content to walk the red carpet for years to come. Mutesi's goal is to become a doctor and remain in Uganda. Her brother is studying to become an engineer.
"These kids are not trying to leave," McLellan said. "They're going to all these events and saying, 'Why can't we have this here?'"
"The chess center will always remind me of where I came from," Mutesi said. Her next comment shows the difference in her world view. When asked what she hoped the chess center would accomplish, Mutesi mentioned first that it will be a place for other kids to eat and sleep. "Even security would be provided to them," she said.
Crothers's book details the unceasing problems in Uganda - civil wars, AIDS, and constant flooding in shanty towns. "The largest of the eight slums in Kampala, Katwe is one of the worst places on earth," he wrote. People sleep in hammocks to avoid drowning. There, the term "running water" means the wading required to walk down the street after it rains.
To top it off, girls have it worse. "Most of the women are denied education," Mutesi said, adding that they sometimes aren't fed as well and face the added concern of sexual abuse.
"She has a special attachment to her family," Katende said. "She can continue to be a great inspiration to many, especially the women in Africa, but she has to connect to better chess training opportunities." Katended admitted that she is now better than him and he mostly serves as her mentor and "guidance for her character." He hoped that the sprinkling of training in between her public appearances on this trip would help her achieve another FIDE title.