Uganda’s chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi’s tale to be turned into Hollywood film

Phiona Mutesi's story of becoming a chess genius in the slums of Ugandan capital, Kampala is being turned into a movie under the direction of Mira Nair.

Phiona Mutesi plays a game of chess with her colleagues at the chess academy in Kibuye, Kampala in January. Isaac Kasamani / AFP
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Phiona Mutesi discovered chess while she was a starving 9-year-old, foraging for food in the sprawling and impoverished slums of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

“I was very hungry,” says Mutesi, who is now about 18 years old and a chess champion who competes internationally.

And now her tale of triumph over adversity is being turned into a Hollywood epic directed by Mira Nair. Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o is tipped to play her mum, and the British- Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed Martin Luther King in the 2014 civil rights drama Selma, is also rumoured to be involved.

“My dad had died, and after the age of 3 we started struggling to get food to eat,” Mutesi says.

The family lived on one meal a day and Mutesi was forced to drop out of school at the age of 6 when her mother could not pay the fees.

One day, in 2005, Mutesi discovered a chess programme in a church in the city’s Katwe slum districts. Potential players were enticed with a free cup of porridge. “It was so interesting,” she says. “But I didn’t go there for chess, I went just to get a meal.”

She developed a talent for the game that turned into a passion. “I like chess because it involves planning,” says Mutesi. “If you don’t plan, you will end up with your life so bad.”

The film, titled Queen of Katwe, is based on a book of the same name about Mutesi by American writer Tim Crothers. Filming is due to begin in Uganda and South Africa this month.

Coach and mentor Robert Katende, of the Sports Outreach Ministry, remembers Mutesi wearing “dirty torn clothes” when he met her a decade ago.

“She was really desperate for survival,” says Katende, who is building a chess academy for 150 students near Kampala.

Two years after learning to play, Mutesi became Uganda’s national women’s junior champion, successfully defending her title the next year.

By the time she took part in her first international competition, Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament in South Sudan in 2009, Mutesi still had not read a book.

“It was really wonderful because it was my first time abroad,” she says. “It was my first time to sleep in a hotel. We came back with a trophy.”

Since then Mutesi has competed in Siberia, Turkey (after which she was given the Woman Candidate Master ranking by FIDE, the World Chess Federation) and Norway.

She has played against her hero, the Russian former world champion and grandmaster Garry Kasparov, and inspired American school pupils to start a tournament in her name.

Back home, her fame has had “an incredible impact”, says Vianney Luggya, president of the Uganda Chess Federation. “The number of lady players participating in championships has doubled,” he says. A recent chess clinic, involving Mutesi, attracted more than 200 people.

While her goal is to rise to grandmaster, Mutesi also hopes to become a paediatrician and open a home for children, especially girls facing the same predicament she overcame.

“Girls are always under -looked, even in chess,” says Mutesi. “But I don’t think there’s any reason why a girl cannot beat a boy. It comes from believing in yourself.”