Phiona Mutesi is one of the best chess players on earth. At 11 she was her country’s junior champion, at 15 a national champion. Soon after she traveled to Russia to participate in the Chess Olympiad, the most prestigious event in the Chess world. Only in her teens, she sat across the board from experts several years older, yet she played with an intensity and instinct that had more experience players struggling to keep the upper hand – and not always succeeding.
Her command of the game at such a young age certainly had people talking. Certainly she must have the best of coaches, the best education, and the best backing to be as good as she is. Certainly the best chess players have the best pedigree.
Phiona Mutesi is from Uganda, a country at the bottom of the pecking order of African nations. And she lives at the bottom of the pecking order of Uganda itself. She’s a child of Katwe - one of the worst slums in the world.
The Queen of Katwe, by former Sports Illustrated senior writer, Tim Crothers, is a gritty inspiration. Crothers introduces us to a culture where human life is cheap. Where life, moment to moment, is not guaranteed. Where a teen girl’s goal is to give herself to a man, or more than one man, in order to secure food and shelter – and hopefully support for children when she gets pregnant. But in a country rampant with AIDs, it’s not uncommon for that male support to succumb to the disease and leave his offspring homeless and scraping for food.
This was the life that Phiona was born into. A world of mind-numbing destitution and hopelessness.
But while Phiona and other children like her fought to survive in the squalor that is Katwe, there were people who were determine to bring hope.
People like Robert Katende who grew up in Katwe and fought his way out. A man of strong faith and a passion to mentor and love the kids who found their way to the Sports Outreach center every day to get a bowl of porridge and learn chess.
People like Russ Carr, on staff at Liberty University, who, 25 years ago, founded the Sports Outreach Institute that uses sports as an inroad to missionary work in third world nations.
And people like Norm and Tricia Popp who established the Andrew Popp Memorial Scholarship to help Ugandan slum children get an education, after their son’s tragic death.
Crothers masterfully intertwines these stories until each life intersects at the moment when a shy, filthy little girl first placed herself in front of a chessboard.
Rooks, bishops, knights, pawns, queens and kings fought for survival and dominance on the board. Each move that Phiona made would mean win or lose – a check- checkmate reflection of her life in the muddy streets of Katwe.
But her excellence at this game opened doors that would never have been opened to her. Traveling around the world, sleeping in a real bed in a hotel with toilets and running water, and most of all food, more than she could possibly imagine.
Unfortunately, those tournaments that took her out of Katwe would end, and she would return to the only life she had ever known.
Phiona is still in Katwe, going daily to play chess at a little church outside of the slums. She has dreams that she dared never to dream before – but getting out of Katwe won’t be easy. But she has a chance.
The Queen of Katwe does inspire, but Crother’s doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of Phiona’s life in the slums. Being a chess champion means very little in the mean streets.
So as Phiona’s gutsy attitude and determination lifts the heart – her situation, and the situation of many Ugandan children like her, can’t help but convict the spirits of those of us who are first-worlders.
The Queen of Katwe is an important book. We tend to forget how most of the world lives. Phiona’s story is a moving reminder that every life holds value, and we have the opportunity to influence the endgame.
Free advanced reader copy of The Queen of Katwe received from Scribner Publishing in exchange for an honest review