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. 

Lisa Suhay
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
Phiona Mutesi and United States Chess Federation's Robert McLellan stand order food at A-Mayes-ing Soul Food restaurant in Chesapeake, Va.
Lisa Suhay
Phiona Mutesi loved the colored chess pieces that NICE uses to teach the game to children. NICE gave her a queen piece in every color they have as a parting gift.

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.  

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.

Phiona is a very natural, honest, painfully soft-spoken young woman and the only coaching she has received is in chess and not public relations sound bites. She does what my kids call “keeping it real.”

A child at the Tidewater Park Elementary School in Norfolk asked her, “Did you always believe in yourself and that you’d get the money to get out someday?” Phiona replied, “I never think about money, only to survive and to do what is right in sight of God.”

“Is it hard being away from your mom while you’re here?” a girl in high school audience asked. 

Phiona answered, “It is very hard because when it rains in Katwe people die and I worry my mother will die before I come home.” 

The room went utterly quiet as kids in the Title I school in a neighborhood where many students view themselves as impoverished and hard done-by.

For full disclosure, I run a tiny volunteer group called The Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) in Norfolk and volunteer as much time as possible teaching chess to children and parents in my community because I have seen it lift spirits and grades and open a door from poverty to opportunity. 

Two weeks ago, Robert McLellan of the USCF, the governing body for chess in America, asked me if I would like to have Phiona visit my community and if I'd volunteer to pull together two days of events for her. Volunteer is the key word — I am not paid by USCF, the school system, or anyone else to do anything involving chess. Chess is my personal ministry and outreach to my community.

We took her to visit three schools, and then the kids in my program performed a living chess game in her honor with the help of the Art Outreach Program at Old Dominion University which provided costumes for our little children to wear.

At lunchtime we also introduced Africa’s “Chess Queen” to A-Mayes-ing Soul Food restaurant in neighboring Chesapeake, Va.

It’s a hole-in-the-wall place below an overpass near the schools we were visiting.

Phiona can’t get her mind around American food. “If chicken has no bones it is not a chicken,” she patiently explained. 

When the owner, Sheila Mayes Eason, heard that someone had come into her place from Africa and didn’t know soul food, the place erupted with banging on pots, pans, tables, and the counter with the cry of, “First time! First Tiiiime!”

She then hustled out in her apron, took Phiona under her wing, and explained, “Soul food is food made from your soul. There’s feelin’ in this food. This is something passed down from generations, mother to child. It’s not fancy, but it’ll fill ya body and soul.”  

This was the first time I saw Phiona completely let go, deflate, and relax. “I like this. This is the real food. She should come to Uganda and cook there.”

Mayes Eason laughed and replied, “Well alright! I don’t know where it is, but I’d go cook in Uganda.”

When Mayes Eason was informed who Phiona was and where she came from she said, “No water? They got no running water? Well what’s it take to get it done? Let’s go over there.” I do believe that Kampala is in for water and soul food, while Phiona quickly convinced Mayes to start running chess after hours in her establishment.

Phiona is a great chess sales person.

This may be because in order to survive, Phiona’s mom had no choice but to have her children in work beside her from a very young age. “My mother and I sell maize-corn,” Phiona explains.

I wish I could meet Phiona’s mother because this woman is a genius and an unsung hero. She came up with a risky plan to buy corn from a vendor on the day before it becomes inedible. She roasts the corn, and then Phiona and mom sell it. If they fail to sell all the corn, they lose. Phiona has become a very good corn seller.

I know we are celebrating the child and with good reason, but her mother’s tenacity, ingenuity, and courage is why this child is honored by Newsweek and according to a CNN report, Disney has optioned the rights to her story and recently announced a choice of directors to move forward with the film on her life. 

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