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Meet Phiona Mutesi: the incredible woman whose name you're about to hear everywhere.

Queen of Katwe
Thanks to our brand partner, Queen of Katwe

When I think of young people doing inspirational things, several names pop into my head.

Malala Yousafzai. Simone Biles. Emma Watson All people who have made a huge impact in their respective fields on a global stage.

Earlier this week, another name joined that list: Phiona Mutesi.

Phiona’s story is a little different from the others, however. Less than 10 years ago, she was an illiterate teenager living on the fringes of shanty town Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Now, she’s an international chess champion.

Disney’s Queen of Katwe is the inspirational true story of Phiona, whose world changes when she discovers a love for chess. But this isn’t just a story about chess – it’s about overcoming the odds to create your own destiny.

When we first meet Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), she’s about to play one of the toughest chess games of her life – against a grown up. I immediately begin to wonder what a young girl – who couldn’t have been older than 16 at the time – is doing at an adult competition. I know straight away that there must be something very special about her.

Meet Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende, who were the inspiration behind Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe.’ Image: supplied.

The film takes us back a few years to 2008, where we find a young Phiona collecting water for her family in big plastic barrels. The then-family of five shares a small, makeshift home lead by their strong, single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). While Phiona’s elder sister Night seeks to escape their situation, Phiona takes on much of the responsibility of caring for her baby brother and providing for her family.

While selling maize on the street one day, Phiona follows her brother Brian to a chess club run by a local Christian missionary. The club, run by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who becomes fondly known as ‘Coach,’ is full of local children whose families cannot afford to send them to school.

During her first visit to the clubhouse, the other children mercilessly tease Phiona for her ‘bad smell’. But she does not run away – instead, she fights back and stays to learn more about the game.

It is this that strikes me most about Phiona: her determination and great sense of self enable her to make it through any tough situation.

On that first day, Gloria, one of the other children in the ‘Chess Pioneers’, teaches Phiona a valuable lesson about the game; when your pawn reaches the end of the board, it will be traded for an additional queen piece. “[In chess] the little one can become the big one – that’s what I like about it.”

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In that moment, we learn that chess is a metaphor for life. Coach explains that in chess you must plan to avoid potential threats and dangers, you must fight to stay alive and if you search hard enough, you can always find a safe square.

In an instant, it all changes for Phiona. She begins to fall in love with the game.

“Phiona begins to works hard and apply herself to the game.” Image: Walt Disney Pictures.

Lupita Nyong’o gives a stunning performance as Harriet, displaying the depths of a mother who will move hell and high water to provide for her children, but at times is denied the respect she deserves. She is fearful for her children, conflicted between her desire for their happiness and her struggle to keep them safe.

Harriet is initially apprehensive about Phiona and Brian playing chess – convinced that they are getting involved in gambling – and forbids them from returning to the Pioneers. It is only through their displayed passion for the game (as well as a little convincing from Coach Robert) that she gives them her blessing to be involved.

Phiona begins to work hard and apply herself to the game. She practises with her brother Brian, she plans out moves and strategies in her mind and she begins to get better.

Eventually, she becomes the best player in the Pioneers and is awarded a special wooden Queen piece to signify her achievement and status.

In turn, Phiona also inspires others around her. Coach Robert, who initially took the job at the missionary only on a temporary basis while he searched for an engineering role, begins to actively search for new opportunities for the Pioneers.

He convinces the Principal at Uganda’s finest private school, King’s College, to allow them to participate in the Ugandan School’s Tournament.

The Pioneers – though they were judged on their dress and lack of table manners – were underestimated by their competitors and come out as victors, with Phiona being named best player of the tournament.

Coach also arranges for the children to begin private lessons to prepare them to enter school. He arranges for Phiona and two other Pioneers to travel to Sudan to represent their country in an African-wide tournament and he fosters Phiona’s talent as much as he can.

The world suddenly begins to open for Phiona and the Pioneers. They begin dreaming of bright futures and making a difference to the lives of their families.

Their community, once overlooked and forgotten, is now filled with a renewed sense of pride and unity on the back of the children’s’ success. My heart warmed to see scenes of celebration in the streets of Katwe, reminding me that our success gives others permission to shine too.

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Lupita Nyong'o (left) and Madina Nalwanga (right) give a heart-warming performance as mother and daughter. Image: Walt Disney Pictures.

Harriet is no exception. The widow, once suspicious about the intentions of Coach Robert and fiercely protective of her children, learns to trust the goodness of those around her. More importantly, she learns to give Phiona the space to carve her own path.

There’s barely a dry eye in the audience when Coach tells her, “Your children are blessed because they have a mother who never gives up on them.” The sacrifices she’s made for her children are starting to pay off, and it’s hard to think of a worthier family.

It also made me want to call my own mum and thank her for everything she’s done for me – but I figured I’d better wait for my tears to die down a little.

Disney’s Queen of Katwe is a story of passion and resilience. Even as an adult, Phiona’s strength and determination to change her destiny has motivated me to pursue my own dreams, knowing that it’s never too late to become who you were meant to be. This is a story that I want to watch again and again, and one that I will share with my nearest and dearest.

Who inspires you everyday?