Phiona Mutesi, whose aptitude for the game of chess took her from an impoverished African slum and transformed her into the Queen of Katwe, the subject of a Hollywood movie, shared the inspiring story of her life Saturday with a group of young students in Rohnert Park.
“Chess has given me a platform where I can speak and restore hope for people without hope,” the 21-year-old internationally recognized chess player from Uganda said during an appearance at the Rohnert Park Senior Center.
The event, organized by local nonprofit Chess For Kids, introduced 30 students to the real people whose lives inspired the 2016 Disney film “Queen of Katwe” and a 2012 book of the same title.
The day started with a screening of the two-hour film and then introduced the children to Mutesi, fellow Ugandan chess player Benjamin Mukumbya, 19, and their instructor, Robert Katende. Mutesi and Mukumbya played chess with each of the students, jumping from board to board as the Ugandan chess celebrities engaged in 30 simultaneous games, one move at a time.
“We’re going to give 30 kids a lifelong memory,” said Marc Hayman, the lead instructor at Chess For Kids, which operates in about 50 schools in Sonoma County.
Mutesi grew up in Katwe, a slum in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. At the age of 9, she found her family couldn’t afford to keep her in school, so she dropped out and began selling corn on the street.
She ran into Katende, who was developing a chess program at the Sports Outreach Institute, and her life took a dramatic turn toward eventual international stardom. Children from the slum began earning a reputation for their chess skills under Katende’s tutelage.
Mukumbya, who entered the same chess program as Mutesi, also competes internationally. In the film his character is shown flying to Juba, South Sudan for a regional chess competition.
Katende’s program, now called the Robert Katende Initiative, reaches 1,500 kids in Uganda at 16 different locations. His “pioneer students,” men and women from his first program that included Mutesi and Mukumbya, now run the new locations.
“My philosophy is to focus on life and then chess,” Katende said. “But chess is also a great metaphor for life.”
Through chess children can learn critical thinking, planning and patience as well as facing consequences for choices, Katende said.
Chess has worked as the vehicle used by Mutesi and Mukumbya to pull themselves out of Katwe. Their day in Rohnert Park was a fundraiser for a scholarship fund for the two Ugandans, who will begin their first year of college at Northwest University outside Seattle in the coming weeks.
For Christy and Dan Harmeson of Santa Rosa, the event was something their 10-year-old son Elijah was looking forward to as a test of his young skill.
“He spends a lot of his time playing chess and is really good,” Dan Harmeson said. “But he probably has a zero percent chance of winning here today.”
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @nrahaim.