Phiona Mutesi is a teenager living in Katwe, the biggest and possibly toughest slum in Uganda's capital city. She's also a rising star in competitive chess.
Her story is told in the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.
But when she first started the game, Mutesi wasn't hungry for glory; she was just hungry. A local chapter of a Christian charity hosted a chess program, and it lured Mutesi, her brother and other children with the promise of a meal.
"Our family didn't have money, and we were yearning to get some food. We didn't have food at home," she tells NPR's Michel Martin. "My brother knew about chess, and he could go to the chess program to get a cup of porridge."
The kids in Katende's chess group were all struggling. "Almost 97 percent of the children don't go to school at all," says Mutesi's coach and mentor, Robert Katende. "When you're in a survival situation, the parents or guardians have to choose whether to waste their money on education or to find a way to feed the family."
Mutesi herself had never seen or heard of chess. There isn't even a word for it in her native language. But Katende says she was a natural talent. "She has a special — I call it — a gene." He also acknowledges that her difficult life in Katwe helped develop Mutesi's competitive streak. "I notice that she's very aggressive, because, you know, it's like, when you're determined."
Despite these obstacles, after this year's Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey, Mutesi qualified for an official World Chess Federation title: Woman Candidate Master.
Katende says Mutesi's success is an inspiration for everyone around her. "She's really transformed her entire family, because they have come to realize that they can make it in life, they have gained hope," he says. "So many children are now coming on the program, and they're optimistic that maybe one day they can also get out of the slum."
Mutesi says her dream is to conquer the world of chess and then make the world better for her community. "I want to be a grandmaster," she says, "and I want to be a doctor so I can help my family — and I want to help slum kids."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee sitting in for Michel Martin, who's under the weather today. We now turn to the kind of story that many of us will recognize from movies about heroes in sports. It's about an underdog who, with passion and hard work, somehow finds a way to beat the odds. This story, though, has the advantage of being true. Disney has bought the film rights.
It may be a familiar storyline, but in this case, the competition isn't football or baseball. It's chess. Phiona Mutesi is a teenager living in Katwe, Uganda. It's known as the biggest and possibly toughest slum in the capital city of Kampala. For most of her life, she'd never seen or heard of chess, but just a few years ago, after she started in the kids' chess program, she became the Ugandan women's champion and, after this year's Chess Olympiad in Turkey, she qualified for an official title by the World Chess Federation as Woman Candidate Master.
Her remarkable story is chronicled in a new book by sports journalist Tim Crothers, "The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grand Master."
Recently, Michel Martin sat down and spoke with Crothers, Phiona Mutesi herself and Phiona's coach and mentor, Robert Katende.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Thank you all so much for joining us.
TIM CROTHERS: Thank you, Michel.
ROBERT KATENDE: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Phiona, I'm going to start with you.
PHIONA MUTESI: OK.
MARTIN: Thank you for coming, by the way.
MARTIN: How are you doing?
MUTESI: I'm doing well.
MARTIN: You don't seem nervous at all.
MARTIN: No? No more, no longer. How did you start playing and what is it about chess that you like?
MUTESI: OK. In Uganda, most people - they don't know about chess. Like, my first time - OK - I didn't know so about chess. Our family didn't have money and we were yearning to get, like, some food. We didn't have food at home, so my brother knew about chess and he could go to the chess program to get, like, a cup of porridge, so I also wanted to know where he was playing chess. Maybe I'd get some porridge there.
One day, he was playing football. I waited for him to finishing playing. I started following him. He saw me when I was following him and he was like, go back home, so I refused, so we started fighting. Since he was my oldest brother, I decided to go back home, so he was like, don't follow me again.
MARTIN: Why didn't he want you to follow him? He didn't want to share the porridge or he just thought girls shouldn't be playing or what?
MUTESI: No. He didn't want me to see where he was playing from - chess. Maybe he didn't want me to know that he was playing chess because some believe that chess is like a game for these people who behave badly.
MARTIN: They might think it's something to keep you occupied if you are a bad person. Well, just - coach Robert, why don't you pick up the story? As I understand it, the chess actually followed soccer. You were actually coaching kids in soccer.
KATENDE: I used to do soccer for quite some months, but I kind of noticed a couple of children who never took part in the soccer activity and the slum is something which is really so challenging as an area. People don't simply open up and the only way you can transform someone - you have to have, like, that kind of strong relationship where they are ready to share their pain with you. So you can not just come out of the blue to share that. So the biggest objective I had was to first view the relationship and...
MARTIN: Just to clarify - just to give people some context, you were working as part of a Christian outreach group. Right?
MARTIN: An after-school program. That's what we would call it.
KATENDE: Sure, yes. Sports outreach (unintelligible) was using sports as a tool to reach out to the children in the slums.
MARTIN: And was the chess a way to reach the kids who couldn't play soccer or weren't interested?
KATENDE: It's something we just - I thought about it because I knew when I tried to entice them to get involved in soccer, they didn't want because they said they don't like soccer. I had to respect their interest, so the question was, how can I have another platform where they can actively be involved?
MARTIN: What is it that you noticed about Phiona as a player when she finally got past her brother's opposition and was able to get there?
KATENDE: Actually, she's natural. I think she is really blessed because she has a special - I call it a gene. I kind of noticed that she's very aggressive because, you know, it's like when you're determined. But, in the slum, I know what really kept her coming was food because you stay home. You're starving. Then your brother comes. He tells you, OK. We had a cup of porridge. Now, you know you are at home starving, so many children are having that kind of survival. They really do a lot of risky schemes because of getting what to eat.
MARTIN: How significant is it that Phiona has achieved the level of stature in chess that she already has?
KATENDE: It is a real something sure important to the rest of the children. One, she's really transformed her entire family, because they have kind of come to realize that they can make it in life. They have gained hope. She's now been enrolled to school. The brothers are also going to school.
MARTIN: And just to clarify for people who aren't sure that they understand what we're talking about, after the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, when Phiona qualified for her first official title by the World Chess Federation, as a women candidate master, she's not just the first Ugandan women to receive this title, as I understand it, she's the first woman in East Africa.
Tim Crothers, let's turn to you. How did you hear this story? You know, it's one of those things that we often tell ourselves that the person who invents the cure for cancer could be half a world away in a house with no running water in Uganda. But in this case it's actually true. Here's a person who's living...
MARTIN: ...in a very difficult circumstance. And I'll just say, I hate to say - Phiona, I hope this doesn't hurt your feelings, but Tim is very blunt about this in the book, you write about the fact that Katwe is what you say one of the worst places in the world.
CROTHERS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
MARTIN: So how did you find this story and tell us more about why it's so remarkable?
CROTHERS: Sure. As a journalist - and you can understand this - we all have people come up to us on an almost daily basis and say, I've got a great story for you. We are required as journalists to hear them out, even though 999 times out of a thousand that will turn to nothing. And that was the one time that it turned into a book. I knew as soon as I heard the story, which I read in a Sports Outreach monthly newsletter, and that newsletter was about Phiona going to the Sudan and it was her first ever trip out of the Katwe slum, and she and two other kids from Robert Katende's chess project miraculously won this tournament.
MARTIN: So let me say this, you read this in a newsletter...
MARTIN: ...about them winning the tournament, which is again, the kind of thing that you see in the movies.
MARTIN: Did you actually believe it? Tell the truth. Did you believe it?
CROTHERS: Well, I absolutely was skeptical of it. I thought - the first question I asked the people at Sports Outreach when I first contacted them was, how much of this is true? But the more I looked into it - and especially once I traveled to Uganda, I realized that this was true and what she had done was legitimate and I got a chance to see the inside of the Agape Church with 40 kids playing on these incredibly rustic chess boards, sitting on these church pews that, you know, are rickety, barely able to stand up. And even the Agape Church itself, if you walk in, you look up into the rafters and you realize that this is the kind of place that could fall down at any moment. That's sort of the way you feel about the entire story, is you just wonder how long can they hold on, you know, how long can this group hold on because it is such an extraordinary story.
MARTIN: Well, this is how you described Katwe in your book. You say (Reading): The largest of eight slums in Kampala, Katwe is one of the worst places on earth. The slum is often so severely flooded that many residents sleep in hammocks suspended just beneath their roofs to avoid drowning. Raw sewage runs through trenches beside the alleyways of the slum and floods carry it inside people's shacks. The human waste from neighboring downtown Kampala is also dumped directly into Katwe. There's no sanitation service. Flies are everywhere. The stench is appalling.
MARTIN: And Robert Katende, one of the reasons that you were working in this community is that the kid's access to education is sometimes very limited. Is that right?
KATENDE: Definitely. Almost 97 percent of the children don't go to school. The...
MARTIN: Don't go to school at all.
KATENDE: Yeah. They try but eventually, you know, when you're in a survivor kind of situation, the parents or guardians have to choose whether to waste their money on education or to find a way of trying to feed the family.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things that Tim writes about in the book is that when you first went to the tournament, some of the other kids were not so nice. Can you talk little about that about that?
KATENDE: Yeah. Definitely, you know, just even the way they dress, so even going there I had to figure out what they should put on so that we can try to identify ourselves with the community where we are heading. But it was like believe in yourselves every time, no one knows what we have gone through, no one knows where we are coming from so, chess is mainly a game. If you are playing it in Uganda, they are the noble families, people who are really well-off and most of the children speak English. Now you get these kids, they have - they don't know any word in English, they cannot even communicate to the people who are there, so they total feel out of place. They cannot even write their names, so they kind of wonder, which kind of people are these? Where are they coming from?
MARTIN: Phiona, were you scared when you went to your first tournament?
MUTESI: Yes, I was very scared.
MARTIN: Can you describe what it felt like?
MUTESI: OK. Actually, I started shaking. I was so scared and I was very nervous...
MARTIN: Well, this was, was it your first time leaving your community, is that right...
MARTIN: ...where you live, yeah?
MUTESI: Oh, yes.
MARTIN: And what Tim writes about in the book, some of the other kids not being so nice this, do you remember that?
MARTIN: How were you able to keep fighting and keep playing and focus? Do you remember?
MUTESI: Yes, because actually, when I went - like I got some money and that money encouraged me and I said if I was able to do this I will get more.
MARTIN: Some people though, faced with a situation that was so different would have been so scared that they couldn't perform at all. And why do you think it is that you are able to?
MUTESI: I think for me actually, it was because of the porridge I was getting. I was like persisting to get that porridge.
MARTIN: The porridge.
MARTIN: Just to get the food - to get enough food.
MARTIN: Tim, when you hear that, I mean, can most of the people listening to our conversation really understand what that is?
CROTHERS: No. I call the two people who are sitting with us today a human perspective. And when I first walked into Katwe that was really what struck me the most. When they came back from the Sudan that day, there was a big celebration in Katwe. And Ivan and Benjamin, Phiona's two teammates and she, were celebrated. They sang Uganda, Uganda, Uganda. And everybody was so excited. And somebody came up to Phiona, an American, and Phiona's mother did not yet know what had even happened because that's the way, she doesn't have any sort of phone or anything so there's no way of her knowing what had happened. And so somebody said to Phiona, what's the first thing you're going to tell your mother when you get back to your home? And she said I'm going to ask her, do we have enough food for breakfast? That she would not go home and say, mom, mom...
MARTIN: Look what I got.
CROTHERS: I went to the Sudan and we won. And look at this trophy. And it was immediate concern about how are we going to survive the next day? And I think that's the story in a nutshell that I wanted to try to tell in the book to give people a perspective of how much different the lives of Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende are from the ones that we're familiar with in America.
MARTIN: Robert Katende, how are things now with the chess program? And has Phiona's success and the other kids who are playing, seeing that she's accomplished something - not just within the country but on the international stage - has that brought more attention to the chess program?
KATENDE: The attention is not like it is maybe out from the slums, but it is a great inspiration to the rest of the children who are in the program and it keeps them more focused. And actually, Phiona has really played a very big role. She's more like now a leader, so she's aware that she just holding a key for so many others. So many children are now coming on the program and they're optimistic that maybe one day they can also get out of the slum.
MARTIN: What is next for her? What's the next level that she needs to get to? And what does she need to get there?
KATENDE: She has a dream of becoming a grandmaster, now having attained the candidate master title. But the only big challenge we do have is that it's really kind of hard to make it from Uganda.
MARTIN: Because the training isn't there? Because most of the tournaments are in Europe? For example...
KATENDE: Yeah. We don't have an access to international tournaments. Secondly, the resources. I just thank God that maybe now this that trip we've had U.S. a couple friends sending us some books, it can provide us better training, possibly. But it's fully so hard that I know there is a ceiling which we cannot beat unless maybe she's out of the country to get better training.
MARTIN: And it's sad in a way because it's like she's such an inspiration to the people around her, but for her to get what she needs she really does need to leave. Isn't that the truth of it?
KATENDE: That's the truth of the matter. But she's an ambassador wherever she will go because she has a great heart of giving back. I remember when we went to Russia we were coming back and then we were in Dubai, she asked me, coach, can we get some sweets for the members? So we bought a kind of candies and reaching there she could just line up even and she's like, can I take some to school? So you see such a heart to really be able to help others along.
MARTIN: Phiona, what's in your heart now? What are you hoping for? When you see the future, what do you want for Phiona?
MUTESI: My future, I want to be like a grandmaster. And I want to be a doctor so I can help my family.
MARTIN: You mean a medical doctor?
MUTESI: Yeah, yeah, a medical doctor.
MUTESI: And I want to help kids, like slum kids.
MARTIN: Well, good luck to you. Thank you for coming to see us.
MUTESI: You're welcome.
MARTIN: We'll keep a good thought for you. OK?
MARTIN: Think about us.. When you become famous wave at us, OK, on the TV. We'll know that you're waving, we're waving back at you, OK?
CROTHERS: Tim Crothers, a final thought. Is there something that, you know, what do you think it means? What does Phiona's story mean?
As an author, we're always looking for a story that's inspirational. And the ability to be able to inspire is really what is the most rewarding thing that an author can get. I mean we all talk about, oh, I'd like to sell so many books or whatnot. But in reading emails from just random people - and many of them are kids around the country - a lot of them are inner-city kids, chess has really started to become a sport that is being taken on by a lot of inner-city schools to kind of shape the kids. And those are a lot of the people that I'm hearing from who, you know, a 12-year-old kid in New York City who says, I've read your book. I never realized how powerful this game could really be, how much it really changed somebody's life.
You have to understand that before Phiona Mutesi discovered chess she had no concept of the outside world. She believed that everybody in the world lived exactly as she did, scrounging for our meals every day. And then all of a sudden this nine-year-old girl stops by this chess project and her life is completely transformed. She has a chance to visit Russia, Turkey, the Sudan and now America. And it's all because of that one day that she followed her brother, against his will, to this tiny chess project and this man, Robert Katende, started to teacher this game that did not exist in their native language. That's what I mean by inspiration.
MARTIN: Tim Crothers is a sports journalist. He's the author of the recently released book, "The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster." Phiona Mutesi, she is the Ugandan women's chest champion and a women candidate master, according to the World Chess Federation. She's a teenager going to school in Katwe, Uganda and she was also here with us, along with her coach, mentor and the man behind the kid's chess program that taught Phiona chess, Robert Katende. They were all here with us in Washington, D.C., where they are touring the country in connection with Tim's book. Thank you all so much for joining us.
CROTHERS: Thank you, Michel.
MUTESI: Thank you.
KATENDE: Thank you for having us.
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HEADLEE: For more on Phiona's story, and to read an excerpt from the book, "The Queen of Katwe," you can go to npr.org, click on the program page and then on TELL ME MORE.
And that's our program for today. Before we go though, we'd like to welcome member station WRK FM of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the TELL ME MORE family. Happy New Year to all of you and tune in next year. That's tomorrow for more talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.