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Now a major motion picture starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, directed by Mira Nair.
The “astonishing” (The New York Times Book Review) and “inspirational” (Shelf Awareness) true story of Phiona Mutesi—a teenage chess prodigy from the slums of Uganda.
One day in 2005 while searching for food, nine-year-old Ugandan Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende.
Katende, a war refugee turned missionary, had an improbable dream: to empower kids in the Katwe slum through chess—a game so foreign there is no word for it in their native language. Laying a chessboard in the dirt, Robert began to teach. At first children came for a free bowl of porridge, but many grew to love the game that—like their daily lives—requires persevering against great obstacles. Of these kids, one girl stood out as an immense talent: Phiona.
By the age of eleven Phiona was her country’s junior champion, and at fifteen, the national champion. Now a Woman Candidate Master—the first female titled player in her country’s history—Phiona dreams of becoming a Grandmaster, the most elite level in chess. But to reach that goal, she must grapple with everyday life in one of the world’s most unstable countries. The Queen of Katwe is a “remarkable” (NPR) and “riveting” (New York Post) book that shows how “Phiona’s story transcends the limitations of the chessboard” (Robert Hess, US Grandmaster).
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The largest of eight slums in Kampala, Katwe (kot-WAY) is one of the worst places on earth. The slum is often so severely flooded that many residents sleep in hammocks suspended just beneath their roofs to avoid drowning. Raw sewage runs through trenches beside the alleyways of the slum and floods carry it inside people’s shacks. The human waste from neighboring downtown Kampala is also dumped directly into Katwe. There is no sanitation service. Flies are everywhere. The stench is appalling.
When it isn’t flooded, Katwe’s land is packed dirt, fouled by the sewage. Nothing grows there. Stray dogs and rats and long-horned cattle all compete with humans to survive in a confined space that becomes more overcrowded every day. Homes exist wherever someone can find space to construct a makeshift shack, at least until a developer decides that land might have some value and the area is set afire. People are evicted from their dwellings by way of a controlled burn.
In Katwe they say that “running water” is the water you have to run through the slum to get, either from a dirty community well or a fetid puddle. Electricity is far too expensive for most Katwe residents where it is accessible at all. Landlords show up periodically with a sack full of padlocks and anyone who can’t pay the rent is locked out of their home.
Katwe has no street signs. No addresses. It is a maze of rutted alleys and dilapidated shacks. It is a place where time is measured by where your shadow hits the ground. There are no clocks. No calendars. Because it lies just a few degrees from the equator, Katwe has no seasons, which adds to the repetitive, almost listless, nature of daily life. Every day is just like the next. Survival in Katwe depends on courage and determination as well as guile and luck. During Amin’s regime when Uganda suffered through a foreign trade embargo, Katwe became known as a mecca for spare parts. Anything that could be sold on the black market could be found in Katwe, where the people developed a vital resourcefulness amid the squalor.
If you live in Katwe, the rest of the Ugandan population would prefer that you stay there. In the more stable neighborhoods that surround Katwe, homes and petrol stations and supermarkets are patrolled by uniformed security guards with AK-47s. The skyscrapers of downtown Kampala are in view from any dwelling in Katwe, just steps away. Children of the slum venture to the city center daily to beg or pickpocket and then commute back to Katwe to sleep at night.
In Katwe, life is so transient that it is often hard to identify which children belong to which adults. It is a population of single mothers and their kids tossed randomly from one shack to another. Everybody is on the move, but nobody ever leaves. It is said that if you are born in Katwe, you die in Katwe. Death from disease or violence or famine or neglect touches everyone in the slum, yet individual tragedies are not dwelled upon because they occur so frequently. Most of the children of Katwe are fatherless and the men in their lives often beat or abuse them. The women of Katwe are valued by men for little more than sex and childcare. Many women in the slum are sex workers who eventually become pregnant, but can’t afford to stop working in the trade. They must leave their children locked in the shack at night and it is not uncommon for them to return home in the early morning to find their kids have drowned in a flood or died in a fire after knocking over the kerosene lamp they were using as a night-light.
Bishop Mugerwa estimates that nearly half of all teenage women in Katwe are mothers. Due largely to the lack of access to birth control in Katwe and its neighboring slums, Uganda is now the youngest country in the world with an average age of 14 years. The prodigious birthrate produces legions of young children without an infrastructure strong enough to raise them or educate them. Many become homeless and hopeless, with no sense that if they disappeared they would even be missed. Katwe’s youth endure an overwhelming stigma, a sense of defeat, and a resignation that they’ll never do any better than anybody else in the slum. Achievement is secondary to survival. “What we have is children raising children,” Mugerwa says. “It is known as a poverty chain. The single mother cannot sustain the home. Her children go to the street and have more kids and they don’t have the capacity to care for those kids. It is a cycle of misery that is almost impossible to break.”
By the time Harriet Nakku came to Katwe in 1980, the muddle of decrepit shacks overstuffed with people stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction.
All of the frogs were gone.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Land of the Frogs 9
Chapter 2 Katende 25
Chapter 3 Pioneers 55
Chapter 4 Resurrection 69
Chapter 5 Teach Her What You Know 83
Chapter 6 Mzungu 97
Chapter 7 Like a Boy, But Not a Boy 119
Chapter 8 Heaven 141
Chapter 9 The Other Side 155
Chapter 10 Hurdles 179
Chapter 11 Dreams 213
New Postscript for the Paperback Edition 233
Tips from Phiona for Chess (and Life) 239
Guide for Book Clubs, Classrooms, and Chess Groups 243
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Queen of Katwe includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Phiona Mutesi had never seen a chessboard. Her home was a decrepit shack in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. At nine years old, she was barely literate, a school dropout who spent her days wandering through the Katwe slum selling boiled maize and hoping she could find a single meal to eat each day. Then she met Robert Katende, a local missionary working for Sports Outreach, an American relief organization. Under Katende’s tutelage, Phiona slowly learned to play chess. She gradually mastered how to strategize, how to defend her pieces, and finally she learned how to win. She won game after game, against boys, against adults, against renowned players, until it became clear that she possessed a true gift for chess. Through a series of unlikely sponsorships and miraculous coincidences, Phiona was able to begin competing and winning in tournaments around the globe. Despite all odds and countless life-threatening obstacles in Katwe, Phiona is now one of the world’s best chess players. Her journey is one that will leave you inspired by the strength and dedication of this courageous young woman.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Queen of Katwe is not only the story of Phiona Mutesi. It is also the story of Robert Katende, Rodney Suddith, Russ Carr, Phiona’s sister, mother, and grandmother as well as the story of the Katwe slum. How did all of these different stories help to shape Phiona’s journey?
2. In what ways was Phiona’s mother supportive and/or unsupportive of her daughter’s interest in chess? In what ways was the Katwe community supportive and/or unsupportive?
3. Should chess be considered a sport by the International Olympic Committee? Should it be included in the Olympics?
4. Why do you think Sports Outreach is a successful way of transforming poverty-stricken lives?
5. The scholarship that paid for Phiona’s education was donated by the Popps, an American family who lost a son. The boy’s father is quoted as saying, “People say that there must have been a reason that Andrew died. There’s no way in my mind that I will ever think that the good things that have come out of this were worth his death.” (Chapter 6). Is there ever a way to quantify the good that can come from tragedy?
6. What factors do you think set Phiona apart from the other chess players in Katwe?
7. How does Phiona’s success affect the other children who play chess in Katwe?
8. How has Phiona’s gender impacted her experience as a budding chess champion? Are her wins more impressive or meaningful because she’s a girl?
9. Do you think Phiona will be able to get out of Katwe without succumbing to the obstacles that have overwhelmed so many other slum children? What specific obstacles does Phiona face?
10. What do survival strategies in Katwe and game strategy in chess have in common? What role does remaining stoic in the face of both victory and loss play?
11. How did the stories of the two Ugandan world champions, John Akii-Bua and Dorcus Inzikuru, help contextualize Phiona’s victories and what they mean for Uganda and Katwe?
12. How was the “Children’s Team” able to eclipse more traditionally educated Ugandan chess players?
13. What new obstacles will Phiona and the other young chess players of Katwe face as they become adults?
14. Discuss the proverb of the Ugandan who argues that relaxing while eating a fish today is preferable to working to create a fishing business so that he can retire and relax while eating a fish in the future. Does the clash between western values and Africa’s mindset prevent true understanding between the cultures?
15. According to the author’s description of Phiona as the “ultimate underdog”: “To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog in Katwe.” What does this passage reveal to you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bring a chessboard to your book club meeting and play a game of chess. If one member of the group is familiar with the game, that member can give a lesson to the others.
2. Try new things. Go outside your comfort zone with the refreshments you serve and discuss what Phiona must have felt like trying all the new tastes during her trips to chess tournaments in other countries.
3. Pool your funds and sponsor a child from Uganda’s Katwe or a similar slum through an international aid group, or create a scholarship for a child to attend school. Discuss what it meant to Phiona to be sponsored by the Popp family.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love chess myself. To read this story, of a young girl straight from the slums of Uganda, she is an insperation. This story has also pulled on my heart strings. I am an ER nurse as well. It was interesting to hear that she dreams of being a nurse also some day. I would be willing to sponsor her, as a foriegn exchange student here in Minnesota. If there is a way, I would be willing to do that. She could finish her schooling here in Minnesota, and continue her chess training.