Phiona Mutesi is one the world’s true underdogs. She is a dirt-poor girl from the Katwe slum of Uganda. Most girls her age in the slum have no bigger dream than simply surviving. But Robert Katende, a man with a similar backstory, from the Sports Outreach ministry, introduces her to the game of chess, and she flourishes. The game is so unknown in Uganda that there is no word for it in Phiona’s language. By the age of 15, she became her country’s champion. She is a true prodigy.
An editor at ESPN Magazine heard about Phiona’s victory in the Ugandan tournament, and dispatched veteran journalist Tim Crothers to write up the story. What was intended as two pages grew to seven, and eventually to this book. Phiona’s story was optioned by Disney, and the movie is scheduled for release in 2016 or 2017.
Crothers does a great job in this book portraying the harsh life in Uganda. As other African nations have begun the slow process towards modernity, Idi Amin’s legacy still haunts the nation. When Phiona first leaves Uganda for a tournament in Sudan, her mother honestly is unsure if her daughter will return. And the “fish out of water” aspects of attending a tournament in Siberia are beautifully captured, as well.
Despite Phiona’s success in chess, her future is still far from secure. Her goal is to become a Grand Master, but without the ability to move herself and her family to some level of physical and financial stability, her future is uncertain.
The book tells a wonderful, motivating story. But Crothers does a great job of reminding us that Phiona’s story has just begun. Phiona has faith in God, and in her own ability, but those may not be enough. Despite the upcoming Disney film, a happy ending is by no means guaranteed.
Source: Public library. I picked up this book after hearing an interview with Don Brenneman of Sports Outreach on the Catch Podcast, hosted by John Fischer. They spoke mostly about soccer, but Brenneman spoke also about Katende’s work with Phiona.