In the far corner of a dead-end dirt lane in Katwe, one of Uganda’s most poverty-stricken slums, a small boy sits on a step peering into a cramped room where Robert Katende addresses a group of teenagers.
At the front of the room a large chess board with magnetic pieces hangs on the wall. Beside it is a well-worn whiteboard with a line down the middle. It reads “Compare: Chess Vs. Life.”
Under “Chess” Katende has written: “Opening”
Under “Life”: “Birth”
“You can’t decide where the pieces begin in chess, just like you can’t decide where to be born,” Katende says. “But you can decide your next move.”
In 2004, Katende began the Katwe Chess Academy for children of all ages as part of a sports outreach program organized by Ugandan missionaries in the capital, Kampala. The remarkable life story of one illiterate girl, Phiona Mutesi, who at age 9 discovered an extraordinary ability to play chess, has been made into a Disney movie, Queen Of Katwe. Through chess Phiona becomes aware that she has the intellect and autonomy to shape her future.
Phiona is one of hundreds of disadvantaged Ugandan children who have improved their judgment, reasoning and problem-solving skills by learning to play chess, says Katende. Even youngsters who had no formal education are able to thrive in school, he adds.
Ten years ago Phiona and her brother, Brian, spent their days selling maize in the narrow backstreets of Katwe. School was not an option because, like many parents in the neighborhood, their mother was unable to afford the fees and there was no government school to accommodate them.
“I heard there was a church down the street giving out free cups of porridge so I went there,” says Brian, who was then 11. “Inside children were playing a game that I’d never seen before.”
Brian kept going back to the chess academy — for the porridge at first but gradually because he began to enjoy the game. “One day Phiona followed me. She was hungry, too, and we wanted to eat.”
Katende remembers the first time he saw Phiona: “She stood outside looking through the cracks in the planks that were our walls. She was shy and so dirty that the other children teased her very badly. She didn’t believe in herself.”
Phiona became enamored with the game and began playing several times a week. But her mother, Harriet, worried that chess was a distraction from earning the money that the family needed to survive — and would give her children high hopes that would only lead to disappointment. So she banned Phiona from returning to the academy.
With Brian’s help, Katende convinced Harriet to let Phiona return to chess by promising that she would receive an education. And meanwhile, she was doing very well on the chess board.
“After only about six months I took her for a chess tournament,” Katende says. “I was impressed by her natural ability and how quickly she learnt.”
Soon after Phiona began to win local tournaments.
Katende’s wife had tentatively begun teaching Phiona to read and write but now, with Katende’s support, the girl had the opportunity to begin school.
Two years after Phiona discovered Katende’s chess program she became Uganda’s junior champion. Three years later, she became the national champion. In 2012, at age 16, at her second Chess Olympiad, Phiona won a sufficient number of matches to become a Woman Candidate Master, the first step toward the highest title for chess players, Grand Master. That’s Phiona’s aspiration.
Katende’s goal is more down-to-earth: “Improving children’s education has always been the most important aspect of the chess academy. Many of the parents in Katwe can’t afford to pay school fees so their children either miss terms or never go to school at all.”
“Learning chess helps children to develop skills they wouldn’t have the chance to learn elsewhere,” says Katende. “Things like theoretical situations, abstractive thinking, the ability to interpret situations and think through how a situation may enhance children’s minds.
“Weighing options, decision-making and using finite resources — these are all life skills which children learn from chess.”
With Phiona’s success, Katende’s Academy has gained financial support from religious groups and a few individuals. Today Katende has an annual budget of $11,000 to pay boarding school fees for about 70 children.
As the academy, children began attending school, they were among the best students in class, says Katende. The administration of St. Mbuga School — where most of the scholarship students went — called him to ask whether the children were receiving private tutoring.
“I told them that chess helps them to achieve academically,” said Katende. St. Mbuga allowed him to introduce chess as a compulsory subject so all the children at the school could benefit.
The children from Katwe still come to the academy. They enjoy playing chess together and are keen to listen to Katende’s life advice.
Brian regularly helps out: “It feels good to teach the younger children chess. I try to remember what Robert taught me and I teach them. Like Phiona and I, some of the children can’t read and write. Chess helps them think and learn.”
“Me, I’m dreaming I big things. I’m studying electrical engineering at university.
“Chess is helping me to become a good planner. Like Robert, I can do lots of things in a short period of time and soon I’ll have saved enough money to buy a car.
“Our youngest brother will start university soon too. We’re getting ahead. The past is gone and this is a new life,” says Brian, beaming.
Stella Nabasitu, who’s now 21, began attending the chess academy about five years ago. “I went and Robert told me it was a game called chess. They gave me a free T-shirt and I joined. I had never heard of chess but I learnt, went to a tournament and lost all my games. I thought that I couldn’t go on but the others told me to keep going and Phiona encouraged me.
“Mr. Katende went to visit my grandma and told her that I would do well if I went to school and that they could help pay” she says.
“Now I’m studying accountancy and finance at university. Me, from Katwe, I could never even have thought about walking in an office. Now, I think I could walk into any office OK. Chess helps me think. If I find a problem, for sure, I have to think about it and every problem has a solution.”