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The best move Phiona ever made

Phiona Mutesi with her mentor Robert Katende who are portrayed in the film Queen of Katwe. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Phiona Mutesi with her mentor Robert Katende who are portrayed in the film Queen of Katwe. Picture: Antoine de Ras

Published Oct 9, 2016


A game of chess saved the life of Phiona Mutesi, a poor girl who grew up in the slums of Uganda.

The now 20-year-old’s heart wrenching but amazing life story has inspired the latest Disney film - Queen of Katwe, starring Oscar-winning Hollywood star Lupita Nyongo.

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Mutesi’s life changed when she crossed paths with chess coach Robert Katende, who could not believe the poor child with no schooling grasped and successfully executed the technicalities of chess.

Mutesi, Nyongo and Katende shared the red carpet on Wednesday night at the Joburg premier of the movie.

Mutesi confessed that she did not have a clue about Nyongo’s stature and fame. In the move Nyongo plays the role of Phiona’s mother, Harriet.

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“I did not know anything about her (Lupita). After I heard she was going to be in the film, I told my friends at school and they started raving about her. They told me about how big she was. I expected her to be very high and mighty, but she was very friendly.”

Mutesi’s coach, Katwe, spent a lot of time with Nyongo, taking the star through his experience with Mutesi, whom he met when she was 9 years old.

“Lupita wanted to connect with the lifestyle of the people. I took her to the slums, to the market. We had to camouflage her so people didn’t recognise her as she did not want to be distracted “ said Mutesi.

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The young actress Madina Nalwanga, who plays Mutesi, received a thumbs-up from the chess queen.

“When I met Madina and she told me her life story, I realised she grew up in the same environment I did. I did not even have to coach her... When I watch the film, I can see myself in it,” said Mutesi.

The role of her coach is played by British-Nigerian actor David Oyeloyo. Katwe had nothing but praise for the star who also played Martin Luther King Jr in Selma.

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“David did remarkable work. I was with him most of the time on set. He did a lot of preparation before we met. He watched my documentaries and my interviews. He even had to lose weight so he could be my size. I did not know it would go that far,” said Katende.

What started as a book about the coach and his protégé, published in 2012, has resulted in documentaries about his work with the children in the slums of Uganda and now has been turned into a movie.

But the publicity the movie has received since Toronto Film Festival last month and Uganda last week has moved to another level.

“It’s been busy since the book came out in 2012. However, no matter how much we prepared mentally, Toronto was still overwhelming,” Katende said.

Their new-found fame has brought a more comfortable life for Mutesi and her family. She bought a house and she and her family no longer squat in abandoned buildings or sleep on the streets.

“It’s just unbelievable... I only started chess because I wanted to learn about the game but the way (my life) has turned out surprises me every day. My family have a house and everyone is happy. Before I met Robert and started playing chess, I had lost hope. I had recently lost my dad and there was no money for school and I thought I would always live on the streets. Since then, I have travelled to different countries and met many wonderful people, which has helped restore my hope. I thank God that I met Robert and learned to play chess, because it is chess that made all these things possible.”

Two years after Mutesi joined the programme, she became Uganda’s junior champion. Later she became national champion. Then in 2012, at 16, she became a woman candidate master, the first step towards grand master, her ultimate goal. She finishes school this year and wants to study child law in the US next year.

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