It’s been a heavy week, but this one will make you smile. Phiona Mutesi, a 14-year-old girl from the Ugandan town of Katwe, has been garnering praise for her skills on the chessboard.
Despite growing up in the slums, not knowing how to read, and having lost her father to AIDS (her mother is also HIV positive), Mutesi’s ability to out maneuver her opponents is helping this young woman become a rising star on the international chess scene.
Last September Mutesi traveled to Siberia to compete in the 2010 Chess Olympiad, a biennial tournament that attracts teams from all over the globe. Despite being “the ultimate underdog,” Phiona Mutesi faces unbearable odds—like walking six kilometers every day—just to play chess, which helps her survive the harsh conditions in Katwe.
“Chess is a lot like my life,” she told ESPN Magazine. “If you make smart moves you can stay away from danger, but you know any bad decision could be your last.”
Phiona’s rise to seasoned chess master was astounding. In less than a year, she was beating her chess coach and he was on a quest to find more difficult opponents, which almost proved to be impossible.
“[Phiona’s coach] visited local boarding schools, where children from more privileged backgrounds refused to play the slum kids because they smelled bad and seemed like they might steal from them. But Katende kept asking until 10-year-old Phiona was playing against teens in fancy blazers and knickers, beating them soundly. Then she played university players, defeating them, as well.”
No matter how far chess takes Phiona, her heart belongs in Uganda. According to the article, her goal is to build a house outside of her town so that she will never have to move again.
I’m not sure if I fully believe in happy endings, but in this case, I’m pulling for Phiona.