From living in the streets in the slums of Katwe to learning chess in a Sports Outreach Institute missionary program to becoming one of her nation’s top chess players competing in international competitions, Phiona Mutesi has come a long way from the 9-year old girl who came for a cup of porridge. The subject of dozens of media stories and a book, “The Queen of Katwe,” which is soon to be made into a Disney movie, Phiona is an inspiration to millions, and especially to girls in a nation where girls are particularly marginalized.
Phiona is currently involved in a well-known secondary boarding school in Kampala, she is in the equivalent of the 12th grade here in the US. Seven of her classmates are friends from the same slum in Katwe as Phiona, two of which are her brothers Brian and Richard.
Phiona’s goal in school is to become a pediatrician. Phiona, Brian and Richard plan to go back to Katwe after they finish school to build a home to provide shelter, clinic care and education for the slum children.
Most afternoons during the school term, Phiona is enjoying her science classes the most and playing chess after school. She will either practice at school with friends or go to the SOM Chess Academy in Katwe and help Coach Robert. Phiona has a real passion for teaching the children chess and a special burden for the young girls.
In 2013 Phiona was invited to the Women of the World Summit in New York City. The purpose of the summit is to highlight women who have made positive changes in various areas of life. Phiona was invited to share how she had overcome so many obstacles and achieve her international level as a chess player. Every year the summit will honor a select few of the women as Women of Impact, Phiona was one of the three for 2013. She was awarded a $25,000 grant to be used to help promote chess and education among impoverished girls in Uganda. To date, Phiona has been faithful to use the funds to speak at conferences, organizations and churches. Phiona also held the first ever in Uganda girls only chess clinic. Phiona had hoped to have at least 50 girls attend, over 400 girls showed up to two day clinic. Coach Robert and Phiona enlisted help from other female chess players and leaders from the community to help run the clinic. The girls were not only taught chess but also encouraged by Phiona and invited professional women to pursue education and to delay marriage and children until after they finish school and begin a career. Phiona has attended and helped support chess tournaments and clinics in other slums and the war ravaged regions in Uganda.
Recently, Phiona was recognized as the most influential athlete in Uganda during the “Queen’s Baton Relay” in the Commonwealth Games, there is only one athlete from each country selected for this title.
Despite all of Phiona’s recognition and “success” as many call it, she has always kept her focus on God, family and friends. Phiona has said many times, she recognizes how blessed her life has become because of chess and how she wants to open the doors of opportunity for other girls and women.
It is amazing to see how Phiona has so quickly progressed from student to teacher and child to mentor; she is a true example of hope in Uganda.
Watch a short documentary on Phiona directed by ESPN.