Uganda has many ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ of Katwe, including at UCU
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2020/01/uganda-has-many-kings-and-queens-of-katwe-including-at-ucu/
By Patty Huston-Holm
In the game of chess, if you lose the queen, most players forfeit.
Not so for Robert Katende, best known as the chess coach for Phiona Mutesi, the Ugandan slum girl featured for overcoming the odds of poverty in the “Queen of Katwe” movie. Not so for Ugandan Madina Nalwanga who had never seen a movie before being plucked from a line up to portray Phiona in the 2016 movie. And not so for chess players and Katwe slum residents Ivan Mutesasira and Mildred Nampala, studying at Uganda Christian University (UCU) in 2020.
The list of Katende-influenced, overcomer names is long and growing.
The game of chess and the Sports Outreach Ministry (SOM) Chess Academy compound in Katwe are the visible ties between Katende and his protégé students. Yet, the most valued of 16 chess pieces – the queen who can move in all directions on 64 squares of the game – symbolizes much more. Katende and his young chess players have suffered losses that would cause most people to quit. But they didn’t.
On a hot, sunny day in early January 2020, more than 50 children surround Katende at the academy. He calls them “kings” and “queens” because, he says, they can rise to the top despite their poverty and other vulnerabilities. They call Katende “coach” as they learn not only how to play the game of chess but how to maneuver through life.
On break from regular school, the poorest of Kampala’s boys and girls ages three to teens, play or silently watch two-player teams at a dozen handmade, wooden chessboards. They sit or lean against each other under an avocado tree, within a three-sided tent or in the building that also houses Katende’s small office at the academy. Katende tells some of his story behind the better-known one about Phiona. It also is detailed in his newly released book, “A Knight without a Castle.”
Katende lost his “queen” – his mother – who abandoned him before he was a year old. As he grew, he felt so abused and unwanted that his only deterrent from killing himself was that he couldn’t scrape up enough money to buy rat poison to do it. He persevered with a life that often found him sleeping on cardboard with his grandmother and a younger child, suffering injuries that included a dislocated wrist wracked with pain as he successfully completed written exams, and digging his fingers into gardens and laying bricks to work his way through school while oftentimes being cheated out of wages.
Today, the former mathematics teacher with a university degree is the backbone of the Academy located in Katwe, which is the poorest slum in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. The Academy is a haven in a village best known for high illiteracy, poor housing, prostitution and low employment except for metal workers who get accolades for their skill in crafting beds and sheds. The chess coach also leads the newer Robert Katende Initiative, a child-uplifting, fund-raising arm based in the United States.
“I see myself as a moving miracle,” he said. “It is not of my own making. God has chosen me to glorify His name. I have no reason to be alive but for His Purpose.”
Katende’s story is one he would rather tell through the next generation that he might have inspired. That generation includes:
- famous Phiona, now studying business at Northwest University (Kirkland, Washington), where another Katwe chess player (depicted in the movie as the boy clicking his fingers a lot) named Benjamin also is enrolled with a dream to become a neurosurgeon;
- teenagers named David, Lydia, Gloria and Stella who auditioned as young, poor Katwe children and received supporting roles in the movie;
- two student chess players enrolled in engineering at the Mukono campus of UCU. There, with the hand of the university’s Vice Chancellor, the Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) exists to serve the underserved with the Academy – if there is financial support.
Through the UCU Partners organization, based in the USA state of Pennsylvania, San Antonio, Texas, resident, Sandra Lamprecht, offered that first support. She sponsors the two UCU students, Ivan Mutesasira and Mildred Nampala. Already an admirer of UCU quality curriculum and character-building education and with family in Uganda, the United States woman saw the “Queen of Katwe” movie in 2016, met Katende in 2017, and felt led to help.
With Katende’s recommendation and facilitated by the MOU at UCU, Lamprecht first agreed to be the American “mom” for Ivan Mutesasira, who is a lesser-known character in the “Queen of Katwe” movie.
“I’m the guy with the hat,” Ivan commented amidst the young chess players, including one hanging onto his leg on this January 8 day. He smiled as he referred to his movie portrayal as a member of the chess team that traveled more than a decade ago with Phiona to Juba, South Sudan, and the tournament where she won and garnered international attention through the media, a book and then a movie.
Like Katende, Ivan, who is now 28 years old, believes his life outside the movie better defines him and God’s purpose.
“The movie touches me because I lived it – paying for water and fetching it in a jerry can, sharing pit latrines, no electricity,” Ivan recalled. “My parents divorced when I was age five. There were five of us as children with a mom supporting us by selling vegetables at the market.”
While he was raised Christian and went to church, Ivan saw his life take an upward turn when, at age 12, he met Katende. Through moves on a chess board, the young Ivan learned discipline, responsibility, strategic planning, action consequences and that someone – the coach and God – believed in him and loved him.
“My friends were dropping out of school and having unplanned children,” Ivan said. “I was learning to accept and appreciate what I had, trusting in God, praying and playing chess.”
What Ivan learned through the chess academy is continuing at UCU, where character building is incorporated into his program in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Upon his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in July 2021, he hopes to make a difference in the place where he grew up.
“That building is wrong structurally,” he said, pointing to a crumbling residence towering three stories above the Katwe academy. “Effluent from the upstairs bathroom is flowing down into people’s rooms. That’s part of what I want to fix to improve lives.”
Mildred Nampala, 21, and the second Katwe youth sponsored at UCU by Sandra Lamprecht, likewise wants to be part of the solution to her country’s poverty issues. She is a year behind Ivan at UCU and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering.
One of three children, Mildred never knew her father who died when she was a toddler; her mother died when she was 12 years old. She served as a house cleaner and cook in exchange for school fees and a place to live with an uncle, his wife and five children until one of the biological children got pregnant out of wedlock. Out of fear that the same would happen with Mildred, the uncle kicked her out of the house. She found refuge in various homes, including that of her sister who works as Katende’s accountant.
Mildred found refuge in chess. The game also reinforced the value of teamwork with all the pieces working together under the guidance of the players. And the “Queen of Katwe” movie that Mildred has “watched more times than I can count” reinforces that she and others in poverty can be more.
While he has had offers to relocate with other organizations and in developed countries, Katende says he is called to remain in his Katwe birthplace. As he looks around and admires the mechanical skills of the less-educated population of the slum, he aspires to grow the chess academy focus into a vocational school within the next few years.
“The school will go there,” he said, pointing to an area near the academy’s single avocado tree and below crumbling houses and rows of laundry blowing in the dusty wind.
This Katende and others know: Millions of people around the world play chess. Losing a queen early on doesn’t mean you lost the game.
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