Uganda's chess champions from the slums
- 25 April 2011
- From the section Africa
When Phiona Mutesi saw a chess board for the first time, five years ago, all she wanted to do was touch the pieces.
Then 10 years old, she was taught chess by a six-year-old girl, like her visiting a charity project for children in the slums of Uganda's capital, Kampala. "When I play my former teacher now, I always win," Phiona says and chuckles.
Those first improvised lessons set Phiona on the path to become a chess prodigy: At 15, she is her country's No 2 and the top woman player in the under-20 category - a title she has held for three consecutive years.
Last year, she travelled to Siberia to compete in the World Chess Olympiad.
And she has helped change the public's perception of chess and who in Uganda should play it.
Having grown up in Kampala's Katwe slum, Phiona never expected to succeed in anything, let alone travel abroad.
Her family's poverty forced her to leave school and sell food in the streets.
When Phiona dropped in at a project run by the Christian charity Sports Outreach Institute, coach Robert Katende was still unsure if chess could capture the imagination of slum children.
"We were running a soccer project, but some children were just not interested," Mr Katende told the BBC World Service.
"I wondered how I could get those kids involved, and because I had a chessboard and knew how to play chess, I gave it a try."
"I did have my doubts, because you do have to make an effort to learn chess," the 28-year-old added.
First time abroad
"These are kids who have never been to school, they are in a bad state, living below the poverty line," Mr Katende said. "They are so desperate, and many of them are orphaned."
Now playing chess has become almost a status symbol, not least because the children and teenagers get to travel to competitions.
When Phiona travelled outside Uganda for the first time, it was for a regional children's competition in South Sudan in 2009, with 16 African nations taking part.
"I was very nervous, because I had never been abroad and also met new players," Phiona told the BBC.
She won all her games. So did her teammates - two boys from the slums.
The trio also won the team championship.
Benjamin Mukumbya, one of the boys who competed in Juba, says chess has changed him.
"I used to be stubborn and would not listen to people's advice," said the 14-year-old, who is Uganda's under-16 champion.
"Now I listen, and I pick out what will help me."
He added that he also finds it easier to make plans and stick to them, "for example when I plan to read my books".
Phiona, who has just finished primary school, also said playing chess had helped her to plan ahead and persevere with her studies, "especially with mathematics".
More young players
Having watched some of his protegees make "amazing" progress and become more confident, Mr Katende is convinced that "skills acquired on the chess board can be transferred into the daily life of a slum kid".
"For me the the magic of chess is that you become like a prophet, seeing things that are ahead. You think of solutions for challenges to come, and when they come you have a remedy for each."
"When you live in a slum, you have to deal with challenges all day long. You wonder what you will eat, what you will drink, where you will sleep, how you will manage."
"That's why chess is a good platform for growth and development."
The Ugandan Chess Federation (UCF) did not agree at first, and Mr Katende had to work hard to persuade them to open the national junior championships for his protegees.
In Uganda, chess was seen as a sport only suitable for educated professionals and successful students.
"The Federation said the competition was for children at school, and some of these kids were not attending classes," the coach said. "But the UCF agreed in the end."
Now UCF General Secretary Godfrey Gali is glad his organisation listened to Mr Katende.
The number of under-20 players in Uganda has risen by 40% in the last few years, Mr Gali said.
He attributed the rise to the success stories of players like Phiona and Benjamin, "who have put a lot of time in to train, have put all their energy into it".
"Other young people also see that chess might open up opportunities to travel, and that makes it more exciting."
Mr Gali believes Phiona is only at the beginning of an international career as a chess player. But he worries that she might not receive the support she needs in order to make it all the way.
"It's really about opportunity. She has the capacity and she has the talent," Mr Gali said.
"The problem is that in Uganda a sport like chess is considered a past-time, and there is no money to build up and support champions."
When thinking about the events of the last few years, Mr Katende still wonders if he is dreaming.
"I look at the situation and ask myself: 'How can this be true?'," he said.
"I am so encouraged by the children's determination. I look at where they came from and the life they lead now. I know they are still struggling, but not the same as five years' back."