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.”