On a rundown street in a slum in Kampala, Brian Mugabe looks at the site of the family’s home and recounts how his sister, a chess champion, lifted the family out of misery.
Ten years ago, Brian, his younger sister Fiona Mutesi, his brother Richard, and his mother Harriet were struggling to survive in Katwe, a slum in the Ugandan capital.
Her life changed when Fiona discovered that she had an exceptional talent for chess. Disney tells its incredible story in a movie released in September in the US: “The Queen of Katwe” (“The Queen of Katwe”).
22-year-old Brian recalls: “From the age of six, I used to walk around the neighborhood selling corn. When I was doing well, I would earn 3,000 shillings (0.78 euros), but there were many bad days.”
He points his finger at some skyscrapers. “It’s in the middle of Kampala,” he recalls. “We used to watch fireworks from here at the end of the year.”
“The first time I went there, it was a chess tournament and I was 12. I had never left Katwe before. Everything changed the day I discovered chess. I never imagined how much this affected our lives,” he explains.
Every part of a bowl of oatmeal gave away free to those who came to play chess by a nearby church.
Challenges and surprises
“Fiona saw I was coming and because we were so hungry, she followed me to eat oatmeal. At first she didn’t want to go in and just looked through the holes in the walls,” Fiona says.
This is how Robert Catende – aka “Coach Robert” – saw the girl. She remembers, “She was so shy and so dirty. She was so dirty that the kids made fun of her. But when she came, I stood up to them and saw that she was strong.”
Robert Catende founded his chess club in 2004 as part of a missionary social programme.
He estimates, “Life on a chessboard is like living in a slum. There are challenges and surprises everywhere, but if you look closely, you can find opportunities. You can find a way out.”
After a few months at the club, Fiona excelled. “He doesn’t know how to read or write but he has an extraordinary knack for anticipating moves on the board,” recalls Robert Catende. “He started winning matches against other kids.”
The observer had to convince the girl’s mother that chess could be a haven for the whole family.
“What was really amazing is Fiona’s determination to survive, when I was a kid. (In a slum), they’re shy because of the environment, they’re so marginalized, they don’t think they can do anything,” Robert Catende describes.
Just two years after starting to play, Fiona became the Uganda Junior Champion. And after three years he was awarded a major title. In 2012, at the age of 16, she was a master’s candidate, the first stage for the prestigious international grandmaster title, which is her ultimate goal.
Phiona has played international tournaments from Sudan to Siberia.
And his story reached the big screen. “Sometimes people think it’s not real, but what you see in (Queen) Katwi is real. The food, the people, the kids who sell corn in the streets, it’s all true,” he says. Phyona, 20 years old.
Fiona manages to buy a modest but comfortable home for her mother, and she and her brother are studying at university.
“Professional problem solver. Subtly charming bacon buff. Gamer. Avid alcohol nerd. Music trailblazer.”