Review of The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster; Tim Crothers; Scribner 2012 English Edition; pp 224
– Susan Thomas
The Queen of Katwe is an inspiring and extraordinary story of one girl’s determination and triumph in the chess world. Born into dire poverty and overcoming two near-death experiences, Phiona Mutesi lives with her mother and three siblings in Katwe, a decrepit slum in Kampala, Uganda. She has also slept on the street and survived for days without food, let alone a basic school education. Through a rudimentary chess clinic in Katwe initiated by a war refugee, Robert Katende, a nine-year-old Phiona is initially taught by a four year old and continues to master the game of chess through perseverance, humility and practicing in decrepit slum conditions.
Despite her limited language skills, malnutrition and terrible squalour, she plays in chess championships in Russia and Sudan and easily beats out seasoned players. With her championship winnings, she pays hers mothers’ debts, her family’s slum rent and her own school fees to pursue a formal education while also initiating her own primitive chess clinic to empower other children in the slum. Her mastery of the game of chess and the intangible benefits are a poignant example of hope and determination and her culture shock of experiencing her first flight, the luxuries of a bed and running water is equally poignant and moving.
The author candidly shares the heart-breaking stories of Phiona, Robert and other slum children, who dream greatly in the face of enormous challenges and use chess as a means of motivation to survive emotionally and economically.
Just like the moving stories of teaching boxing to girls in Afghanistan or photography to children of brothel workers in India, Queen of Katwe shows how it is possible to patiently teach, mentor and empower the less fortunate through major obstacles. The story leaves you yearning for more; wondering how Phiona is surviving through the politics of the Chess Federation, if she completed her education and you continue rooting for her success.