Standing on a drab side-street next to an open sewer in the Ugandan capital Kampala, Brian Mugabi points to the site of his former family home and reflects on how much the game of chess has changed their lives.
Ten years ago Mugabi lived in abject poverty in Katwe, a slum in Kampala where it’s a constant struggle to get by. But at a makeshift chess club in the heart of the neighbourhood, his sister Phiona Mutesi suddenly displayed an extraordinary, raw talent for the game.
The family’s story is now the basis for the feel-good Disney movie “Queen of Katwe” which premiered in Uganda last weekend with Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o playing the role of Phiona’s mother.
“There are a lot of things that I’ve never experienced, like the red carpet and the audience was so huge, and also it was too much the movie, the first time to watch it, it was so emotional, like I couldn’t believe it,” Mutesi said at the premiere.
“Sometimes people think that it’s not real life but what they show in (Queen of) Katwe is true. The foods, the people, children working to sell corn on the street, it’s all true.”
Her brother was one of those corn sellers.
“Starting at age six I walked through the slum selling maize. On a good day I would make 3,000 shillings ($1) but there were many bad days,” said Mugabi, now 22, who led his younger sister to a church-run chess club for the first time a decade ago.
Mugabi pointed over the rough, bustling alley in front of him towards a cluster of high rises on the horizon. “That is downtown Kampala. We used to stand here and look at the fireworks at New Year, but the first time I ever went there was to play in a chess tournament,” said Mugabi, who enjoyed the game but never matched his sister’s abilities.
“Everything changed when we discovered chess,” he said.
– Chess board’s ‘like slum life’ –
It was the free cup of porridge on offer that first attracted Mugabi to the chess club run by Robert Katende at Agape Church, then a rickety structure made from weathered wooden planks and leaky corrugated tin.
Mutesi followed him there, and ‘Coach Robert’, as everyone calls him, spotted her peering in through the cracks in the wall.
“She was very shy and really very, very dirty — so much so that the boys teased her badly — but when she came inside she stood up to them and I saw that she was strong,” said Katende, who founded the chess club in 2004 as part of a sports outreach program run by local missionaries.
“Life on the chess board is like life in the slum,” said Katende. “There are challenges and surprises everywhere but if you look closely you can find opportunities, you can find your way through.”
Mutesi quickly stood out among the slum kids and began winning.
“Phiona couldn’t read or write but she has this remarkable talent to be able to see moves on the chess board,” said Katende.
He encouraged Mutesi to persevere and persuaded her mother, Harriet, that chess offered not just life skills but a route out of poverty.
– ‘Captivating determination’ –
“What was so captivating for me was her determination to survive, as a young girl. Because it’s rare to find in young girls in the slum. They are always timid, because of the environment, they are so marginalised, they don’t think they can do anything,” Katende said.
After just two years of playing Mutesi won a tournament and was crowned Uganda’s junior champion. Three years later she was national champion. In 2012, still just 16 years old, she was made a Woman Candidate Master while competing in her second international Chess Olympiad. Her dream now is to become a Grand Master.
She has played in international tournaments from Sudan to Siberia and now her tale of triumph over adversity is on the big screen. “Queen of Katwe” was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September and has been released in the United States with Britain and Ireland to follow this month.
Away from the bright lights of Hollywood, chess has truly turned the family’s fortunes around. Mutesi, 20, and Mugabi are able to pay university fees, while their mother has swapped the family shack in Katwe for a proper home.