"Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog Katwe."
Young Phiona Mutesi lives in the worst of the worst slums: Katwe, in Uganda, Africa. Her widowed mother usually can't earn enough money to feed all her children. The family is often kicked out of their one room shack because they can't afford rent. Filth is everywhere, and human waste often floods the family shack when it rains. Education is unaffordable. And Phiona is angry, often battling boys in the streets without fear.
That is, until she meets a missionary who teaches her to play a mysterious game called chess. Suddenly, Phiona has a new place to direct her energy and talent. Even though she's a girl, and most males in Uganda think females can never do as well as males at anything, she quickly learns to beat boys in chess. It humiliates the boys so much, they cry. Phiona, in the way of Ugandan women, never brags, and with the Christian humility she's developed, downplays her wins.
Phiona's modesty often takes others by surprise. As does her youth and her aggressive chess technique. Even her chess coach is surprised when she gets to compete on an international scale at age 11 - and wins. In chess, very few females win competitions; but Phiona, a slum child nobody ever thought could amount to anything at all, becomes a chess champion - the "Queen of Katwe."
Tim Crothers' account of Phiona Mutesi is thoroughly engaging. The Queen of Katwe is a book that's easy to pick up and hard to put down. Some critics have complained that much of the book isn't about Phiona herself, but about the people who've helped her achieve her success. This is true - but their stories are so compelling, I didn't mind at all. In fact, The Queen of Katwe reveals the world of Uganda so vividly, it's a hard-hearted person who, after reading the book, doesn't contribute to the charity (Sports Outreach) that helps Phiona and other children achieve, while also teaching them about God.
Especially compelling to me were the scenes where Phiona went to chess competitions outside of Africa. Her coach literally had to teach her and her fellow child chess players how to eat with utensils, how to open a water bottle, and how to use a flush toilet. Along with Phiona, I found myself amazed at the modern world - and I keenly felt her depression when, after having her eyes opened this way, she had to return to the slum.
Which brings me to an important point: The Queen of Katwe doesn't offer a typical happy, Hollywood ending. Phiona is only a teenager; by no means has she reached her full potential. And while winning chess games has enabled her to help pay her family's rent, her mother's debts, and some school tuition, Phiona still lives in the slums.
But as Christians, we understand Phiona better than the world does. Yes, her physical circumstances are still heart-breaking. But we know she has something all the slum - in fact, everyone - needs: Jesus Christ.
I find myself praying for Phiona to overcome the many obstacles the slums throw her way. And with the help of Sports Outreach, The Queen of Katwe makes me believe Phiona - and other children like her - can overcome.
And, good news! Disney has turned Phiona's story into a movie that will release next month. I pray it will touch millions of people, who will in turn support Sports Outreach, Phiona, and children everywhere who are in need.
Sports Outreach Ministry
Queen of Katwe website (including a short ESPN documentary about Phiona)
Trailer for Disney's Queen of Katwe
Phiona Mutesi's Facebook Page