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A Girl Finds her Way and Uplifts Communities through Chess

Phiona Mutesi was born in Katwe, one of the largest and most under-resourced neighborhoods of Kampala, Uganda. At age three, her father died of aids, plunging her already struggling family into destitution and hopelessness. This tragedy would eventually lead to Phiona becoming homeless and out of school, as her family could no longer afford to pay.

Phiona shares her story.

It was only out of an act of necessity that Phiona and her family’s fate would change. After having not eaten for three straight days, she followed her brother to the SOM Chess Academy, which was known to provide free meals for its attendants. It is here that she discovered coach Robert Katende, a game, and, ultimately, the possibility for a new, better life. Returning everyday with at least the opportunity of being fed, Phiona was given much more. She quickly took an interest in the main occupation of the academy: chess. The speed with which she picked up the game speaks to her determination and extraordinary gift. One day became a week, a week became a month, and soon after she lost her first game to a boy who was known to be the most talented player in the academy. Phiona had mastered the game. In just six months she could beat everyone in the academy—including her mentor and coach Katende.

Phiona has since used chess as a vehicle. After she won the Uganda women’s junior championship in Sudan in 2009, Phiona went on to compete in several tournaments in Russia, Turkey, and other African countries. Chess has also allowed Phiona to return to school. Upon completing primary and secondary school in Uganda, Phiona enrolled in Northwest university in Seattle, Washington on a scholarship after visiting the United States. Just recently, she propelled the school to its first ever Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship.

Phiona Mutesi in her own words.

As Phiona rose in the chess ranks, so too did her stardom in Uganda and indeed the rest of the world. A now globally ranked and world renowned chess player, Phiona has been the subject of a book entitled The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster and the 2016 film, Queen of Katwe, starring prominent African actress and actor Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo.

Phiona understands chess as more than a game. For her, it is a way of life. Like navigating the intricacies of daily life, moves on the chess board require a keen calculation and precision. Phiona has made it her mission to give back to the game that has given her so much. Recently, she opened up the first chess clinic for girls in Uganda.

Hazim Hardeman is a graduate student at Oxford University, where he will pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Economic and Social History. He is also African Community Learning Program's secretary and intern for the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

African Community Learning Program empowers people of African background through education.

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Email Aminata Sy at

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