Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers. Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events. Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one. The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.
Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life? There is no satisfactory answer. Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma. What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way. There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess. (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace. It was also no small thing that Phiona’s brother let her tag along. Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe. The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game. Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.
This is an inspiring book. Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating. I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life. (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)
Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona. Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills. So kudos to Katende as well!