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Modern Parenthood

Uganda's 17-year-old chess prodigy travels across the board to Norfolk, Va.

Phiona Mutesi came from a home in Uganda without any running water and electricity, let alone chess resources. But that changed when a chess program planted itself in the community. Now Phiona is in the US, spreading her story and playing chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. 

By Lisa SuhayGuest Blogger / April 12, 2013

Phiona Mutesi, a 17-year-old World Youth Chess champion from Uganda, takes a photo of instructional chess pieces used by instructors at the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence in Norfolk, Va.

Lisa Suhay

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Norfolk, Va.

Phiona Mutesi, a 17-year-old World Youth Chess champion from Uganda, is traveling in a foreign land — like Norfolk, Va. — with her coach and a mentor this week, appearing at Newsweek’s Women in the World Summit last Friday to play legendary chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. And recently she heard Disney chose Indian director Mira Nair to make a movie about her life. The only thing wearing her down is worry over her mother and siblings’ safety in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda.  

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Lisa Suhay, who has four sons at home in Norfolk, Va., is a children’s book author and founder of the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) , a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth via mentoring and teaching the game of chess for critical thinking and life strategies.

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She is a game changer, a lesson to all parents that it’s not about what you can give your child, but that the gift of your presence has a greater, more lasting impact on their lives than material goods. 

Phiona is the rarest of all chess phenoms, maybe not for her rating of 1800 — children as young as six have attained master level ratings of 2,000 and up — but she is amazing because, despite coming from a home in Uganda with no running water and electricity, let alone chess resources, she is able to catch up to American child chess masters.

Phiona is succeeding via patience and prayer, and without obsessing over theory, titles, or ratings. “I want to do well for my father. I want to take care of my mother and brothers,” she says in the heavily accented but fluent English she learned alongside the game of chess in a program called Sports Outreach. After some prodding, she adds, “My dream is also to someday become a medical doctor for children.”

The first thing Phiona tells the groups she meets on her tour is, “I lost my father when I was three years old.”

Her father died of AIDS, and her mother quickly became unable to support herself and four children: “My mother could not afford the school fees and the rent monies, so we begin sleeping in the street.”

In the slums of Katwe in Kampala, “street” is a loose term. Katwe is the area garbage dump and its dirt streets are lined with dug-out trenches used as latrines. When it rains, the trash, raw sewage, and mud form a toxic stew that floods shacks and triggers mudslides around the low-lying area, Phiona explained. Her mother and two younger brothers, ages 10 and 14, are in Katwe while Phiona spends a month touring the United States to promote chess with the United States Chess Federation (USCF) and Sports Outreach, a ministry using sports like soccer and chess to help children in developing countries.

When a child in an elementary school asked, “What inspired you to play chess?” Phiona replied, “I was hungry. I heard that when people went to this program to play chess they get a cup of porridge at the end. So I am thinking only about getting something to eat.”

The program was set up by Sports Outreach and Rodney Suddith, who is the American mentor traveling with Phiona. She also travels with her chess coach Robert Katende, a missionary and refugee of Uganda's civil war who started the chess program in Katwe, offering a bowl of rice porridge to any child who would show up and learn.

"It teaches you how to assess, how to make decisions, obstructive thinking, forecasts, endurance, problem solving, and looking at challenges as an opportunity in all cases – and possibly not giving up," he told Joe Flanagan, a reporter here for WVEC-TV. "The discipline, the patience ... anything to do with life, you can get it in that game."

When Mr. Flanagan asked what her favorite thing about chess is, she said, “Planning. I think to do anything in life you need to have a plan. You need to be patient and follow that plan. But planning is my favorite thing.” She didn’t say anything about fame, money, Disney, ratings, getting stuff, or a trip to America, but rather about owning the ability to plan her life.

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