In a two-room shack in the heart of a Kampala slum, a barefoot 5-year-old boy is being taught how to move his pawns. He is one of scores of Ugandan children following in the footsteps of a local girl who became a chess champion and the subject of a new Disney film.
Queen of Katwe is set in this sprawling shantytown that until recently was only known to Ugandans for its high crime rate.
The movie shines a more flattering light on Katwe and the informal chess academy that nurtured the prodigy, Phiona Mutesi. The story is a source of immense pride for the stigmatised neighbourhood in Uganda’s capital, say some who have seen the film.
“The film ... has the faces I know,” said Barbara Nassozi, a science teacher at a Katwe school where some scenes were filmed. “People have liked it so much. It has brought an impact in the area. Katwe is now known in the whole world.”
Queen of Katwe follows the rise of Mutesi as a chess player amid grinding poverty, with her single mother barely able to support her and her two siblings. After Mutesi’s brother is hit by a speeding motorcycle and hospitalised, the mother, played by Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o, stealthily pulls the boy from his hospital bed because she is not able to pay the bill.
Mutesi falls under the spell of an unassuming chess teacher, played by British actor David Oyelowo, who encourages the teenager to learn the game despite the skepticism of her mother, who warns her not to dream big because “you will be disappointed.”
Mutesi goes on to win a local championship, compete at events abroad and earn enough money to buy a house for her mother.
The film’s pathos will be familiar to those who have lived in Katwe, where poverty drives young people to despair, if not violent crime. Streams of raw effluent follow footpaths. The grade school where some scenes were filmed is makeshift wood structures in the dirt. Young men wash cars for a living.
The Som Chess Academy is an unexpected oasis of hope in the downtrodden community.
“Chess is like a brain booster,” one of its students, 11-year-old Lydia Nakaweesa, said shyly. “It is good for mathematics. That is why I come here.” She had been forced to miss school for a few weeks because she lacked tuition, she said, but the chess academy is free.
Robert Katende, who started the academy in 2004 and became Mutesi’s mentor, now has chess academies in other Kampala slums, with former students acting as instructors when he is not available.
Many children have been knocking on his door following the release of Queen of Katwe, Katende said.
“Chess, I can say, is very important because it has given the children and the community a platform that they didn’t have before,” he said. “They would not have any way out of the slums, but they have been able, through chess, to travel, to go for events, to go to different places.”
Of Mutesi, who now attends boarding school and is a candidate for college, he said: “There is something special about Phiona because, first and foremost, she is a girl. ... She’s also worked hard and believed in herself and taken all the guidance and counsel given to her.”
The film has received mostly favourable reviews in Uganda, where it premiered earlier this month at a red-carpet event in which Ugandans, many of whom had never acted before, shared the limelight with stars like Academy Award winner Nyong’o.
Timothy Kalyegira, a prominent social critic in Uganda, drew widespread anger when he wrote online that Queen of Katwe is plagued by “lacklustre acting by the Ugandans” and “the ineffective sequence of the scenes.”
“The biggest benefit from (Queen of Katwe) is that here is a film that puts forward a truly Ugandan story of hope, of discovery, of small people pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, taking on and conquering the world,” said Daniel Kalinaki, a columnist with Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper.
“It is a reminder that there is more to us than corrupt, power-hungry politicians, hospitals without electricity where doctors operate on patients under torchlight, disease, defiance, destitution and the destruction of dreams.”
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