Ugandan chess champion visits Greenwich Academy

Coach Robert Katende hugs Hunter Korn after her presentation of a donation towards a new chess academy for slum kids in Kampala.

Coach Robert Katende hugs Hunter Korn after her presentation of a donation towards a new chess academy for slum kids in Kampala.

During her recent visit to Greenwich Academy, Ugandan junior chess champion Phiona Mutesi did more than just share a few pointers with the chess team. She and her coach, Robert Katende shared their inspiring stories of how chess, education and determination came together to create an amazing life transformation.

Phiona was born in the Katwe slum outside of Kampala, a place where illness is rampant.

“Human waste is dumped and when it rains many people’s homes are flooded and they die. There are many diseases,” said Phiona.

At the age of six, Phiona, her mother and two brothers started living on the streets. An older sister was already pregnant by 14 and raising children of her own. Seeking a bowl of porridge, Phiona came to a chess program run by Mr. Katende, a Sports Outreach missionary who had also grown up in the slums. He had made it out as a great soccer player, gone on to university earning a degree in civil engineering but felt compelled to go back to help the young people left behind.

While unable to read or write, Phiona quickly learned chess, a game she had never seen before. She went on to win several tournaments including the Africa Junior Chess Championship and by 2010, she was the youngest player in the chess Olympiad held in Siberia. She has since represented her country in Istanbul and will compete in the 2014 Olympiad this summer in Norway.

When asked how she first knew she was good at chess, Fiona said, “When I beat a boy. He started to cry and he never came back to the program.”

Mr. Katende explained that in the Uganda slums all girls are supposed to do is have children.

“Women are marginalized in the society. They don’t go to school, they are not allowed to play sports. So for him to lose to a girl was very humiliating,” said Mr. Katende.

He went on to explain how Phiona’s success has made her a role model and how she is giving back to her community. Phiona received an award at the 2013 Women in the World Summit and was able to pay her own school fees for the year as well as to set aside funds for her family.

In December, she hosted a five-day chess clinic for girls from the five slum areas around Kampala. She was able to cover the costs for 200 girls, and double that number participated.

The Greenwich Academy visit was part of a 33-day tour across America that is raising funds for U.S. programs as well as helping to build a chess academy that will be part of a new education center being constructed in Kampala. The public is invited to participate through a social media fund-raising campaign at Goo.gl/F9AxOj.

Serving as master of ceremonies for the assembly was GA student and chess player Hunter Korn, whose family hosted Phiona, Mr. Katende and the Sports Outreach team during their visit to Greenwich. Later the Korn family hosted a small reception at their home where Hunter presented Mr. Katende with a check for $15,000 which she raised by asking for donations instead of gifts for her Bat Mitzvah.

“While reading the book The Queen of Katwe, about the life of Phiona Mutesi, I was inspired by Phiona’s determination to improve her life in the slums of Uganda and the hardships and challenges that she had to overcome,” Hunter said. “When I heard about the chess school that she was seeking to build, I thought it was a great opportunity to help impact the lives of other kids like Phiona.” She plans to stay involved with NSCF and Sports Outreach in order to continue to act as an ambassador for the chess school and help coordinate more fund-raising activities and interactions with the students.

For more information about Phiona, Mr. Katende and the Sports Outreach chess programs, visit Queenofkatwe.com. For information on chess in education programs in Fairfield County, visit Nscfchess.org.

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