The Queen of Katwe A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2012-10-09
  • Publisher: Scribner
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Based on a popular ESPN Magazinearticleoptioned by Disney films, a finalist for a National Magazine Award and chosen by Dave Eggers for inclusion in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011the astonishing true story of Phiona Mutesi, a teenager from the slums of Kampala, Uganda, whoinspired by an unlikely mentor, a war refugee turned missionarybecomes an international chess champion. Phiona Mutesi sleeps in a decrepit shack with her mother and four siblings and struggles to find a single meal each day. Phiona has been in and out of school her whole life because her mother cannot afford it, so she is only now learning to read and write. Phiona Mutesi is also one of the best chess players in the world. One day in 2005, while searching for food, nine-year-old Phiona followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende, another child of the Ugandan slums, who works for an American organization that offers relief and religion through sports. Robert introduced Phiona to the game of chess and soon recognized her immense talent. By the age of eleven Phiona was her country's junior chess champion and at fifteen, her country's national champion. In September of 2010 she traveled to Siberia, just her second time ever on an airplane, to compete in the Chess Olympiad, the world's most prestigious team chess event. Phiona's dream is to one day become a grandmaster, the most elite title in chess, and to blaze a trail out of Katwe that other children in Robert's chess community can follow. But to reach that goal, she must grapple with everyday life in one of the world's most unstable countries, a place where girls are taught to be mothers, not dreamers, and the threats of AIDS, kidnapping, and starvation loom over the people of Katwe. Acclaimed sports journalist Tim Crothers has written a riveting and inspiring account of one girl's improbable journey to becoming a chess champion. The Queen of Katwewill thrill every reader who loves a great underdog story.


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.

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