I love a heart-tugging story, and this one is at the top of the list. A Disney movie and autobiography resulted from this journey. We have poverty in the US, but nothing compared to some parts of the globe. Uganda on the continent of Africa is one such place where abject poverty reigns supreme.
But out of that debilitating way of life comes a story of one extraordinary teen who defied the odds to become a chess champion, inspire a movie and a book about her life. That is no easy feat for 16-year-old Phiona Mutesi--who lived in the slums of Uganda and was illiterate. She is not even sure of her age and could be younger than 16. Her days were spent foraging for food so that she, her brother and mother did not starve. Her father reportedly died from AIDS when she was only 3 years old.
We may not know her accurate age, but what we do know is that in a deeply patriarchal society, she rose to master a skill that is unheard of for a girl in those parts.
Mutesi's chance meeting with a chess coach irrevocably changed her life. Though she couldn't read or write, she had this amazing ability to understand the complexity of chess.
As seen on CNN Sunday, the shy teen told of her life in the Katwe slums of Uganda's capital Kampala, to rise to reigning chess queen. Her coach Robert Katende sees her as a prodigy, but to Mutesi, chess represents freedom.
That includes the freedom to get out of the slums, to receive an education and help her family by becoming a doctor. Katende, who was a missionary and refugee, reportedly started the chess club in Katwe and offered a bowl of porridge to any child who was willing to learn.
Mutesi just wanted a bowl of porridge that day in 2005, when she wandered in hungry. The rest, as they say, is extraordinary history. She stayed to learn and realized she was brilliant at it.
Katende told CNN that chess “teaches you how to access, how to make decisions, obstructive thinking, forecast, endurance, problem solving, and looking at challenges as an opportunity in all cases—and possibly not giving up.”
Discouraged from playing by the people in her community because she was a girl, Mutesi did not give up and became better and better until she started beating those older than she was. In 2009, she represented Uganda as a chess champion in Sudan and in 2010 went to Siberia. 2012 saw her playing in Istanbul. She now has the highest title for a female chess player in her country.
Read more about Phiona Mutesi and see the video here: