Phiona Mutesi may have grown up in the slums of Katwe, near Kampala, Uganda, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a fast-rising international chess star and a hope to other children in similar situations.
During her brief visit to Southern California this month, the 16-year-old Mutesi is scheduled to come to Trinity Classical Academy in Valencia and speak to their chess players, bringing her inspirational story to a group of students who can only imagine what she has experienced.
The event, presented by the U.S. Chess Federation, will be held on Wednesday, December 12 from 3 to 4 p.m. Mutesi and her Coach Robert Katende will lead a question and answer session, followed by a quick summary of her best chess moves (presented by Chess Expert and Trinity Coach Jay Stallings) in the 2012 Women’s Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey. The event will conclude with a simultaneous exhibition in which she will play several Trinity students at the same time.
Phiona Mutesi’s story began in the Katwe slum, one of the poorest areas in Uganda, where women are valued for little more than childbearing and AIDS is rampant. Phiona grew up sleeping in a decrepit shack with her mother and three siblings. Her father died of AIDS. Phiona has been out of school most of her life because her mother cannot afford it, and she has often struggled to find a single meal each day.
When she first followed her brother to the church where Katende was teaching chess to local children, she was only interested in the free bowl of porridge he offered. Later Mutesi would grow to love the game itself, a game that would take her to Sudan, Turkey, Russia and now the United States.
She won the Women’s Junior Chess Championship of Uganda three times and this year was named the African Chess Champion.
“The students and families at Trinity are very excited to meet Ms. Mutesi and Mr. Katende,” said Trinity Headmaster Liz Caddow.
“Our chess coach, Jay Stallings has told his students about Ms. Mutesi, and I hear that she is a very strong player,” said Elementary principal Jeff Kulp.
“We’re thrilled to have her come out, because she’s bringing with her a message that you can accomplish anything in life, no matter where you come from,” Stallings said. “She started in the slums of Katwe in Uganda, living on the streets and having to wonder every day where her next meal was coming from. Now, she’s gotten this far just by sheer will and tenacity and ability to be very strong at what she’s doing.”
Though the Trinity students are excited to learn from Mutesi and have experience playing against an international champion, her story is about so much more than just chess.
“I hope that the kids realize how fortunate they are in their lives,” Stallings added. “I think a lot of times when we grow up in a community like this, we don’t realize just how fortunate we are. I also want them to realize that they have the potential within themselves to accomplish so much if they work hard like Phiona has, and that they can really do whatever they want and accomplish great things, especially with the resources that we have available. Phiona didn’t have that and look what she’s done.”
The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call Trinity Classical Academy at 661-296-2601.
Click here for Tim Crothers 2010 story on ESPN about Phiona Mutesi, and here for more information about Crother’s book “The Queen of Katwe,” which chronicles Mutesi’s life, available on Amazon.com. Mutesi was also interviewed by ESPN earlier in December 2012, available here.