This is an incredible story of a hungry child living in an African slum, who has been elevated onto the world stage, a child who is now a young woman with the potential for an amazing future.
Uganda is one of the world’s poorest nations, and many of the girls in Katwe, (Kot-WAY) the slum where Phiona lives, are teenage mothers, often with multiple children they can’t afford to care for.
Most of these girls are illiterate and with no-one providing for them, they raise their children in tiny rundown 10 foot by 10 foot shacks with no toilets, running water, electricity or medical care, as AIDS and other rampant diseases ravage them.
With no birth control, they reproduce prolifically but with little income, food is scare, and with no sewage treatment, human waste in Katwe is ever present as is the stench in air thick with flies. In this environment, people and stray dogs, snakes, rats and cattle all struggle to survive.
The death rates are so high; half the population of Uganda is under 15 years of age, making it one of the youngest countries in the world. In Katwe, it is often children raising children who in turn have children as the terrible cycle of severe poverty and ignorance repeats itself.
To them, time is not measured in calendars or clocks. Phiona doesn’t know when she was born but it is estimated she is about 16 years old. When she was about 3 years old, her father died of AIDS, and soon afterward, an older sister died of an undetermined cause.
Phiona could not read and write, when at 9 years old and scavenging for food, she discovered chess at the Sports Outreach Institute (SOI). SOI is an American Christian ministry that feeds the hungry, which is what attracted Phiona, and offers sports and religion.
In Katwe, SOI has a compassionate leader in Robert Katende, a college graduate who also came from a Ugandan slum. He instituted soccer but he also began chess to challenge the minds of the slum children and teach them how to apply the mental demands of chess, to overcome the many vexing issues they face in their daily lives.
It was he who introduced Phiona to chess. She has mastered chess well enough to have won major chess championships. This despite at first playing in her only dress, tattered and dirty, and with flip-flops serving as her shoes.
Through SOI, chess federations and the kindness of others, when Phiona enters chess tournaments, she has an allowance that pays for her needs including her clothing. Money she doesn’t spend she uses to pay for food for her family and the rent on their little shack.
In 2012, she and fellow Ugandan Ivy Amoko won Woman Candidate Master Titles at the World Chess Olympiad, making them the first women to win prominent chess titles in Ugandan history.
But this story is bigger than chess. From her travels, Phiona is now familiar with airplanes, hotels, toilets, clean water, hot water, electric lamps, television, refrigerators, sinks, showers, and silverware (in Katwe, most people eat with their fingers).
During chess tournaments, she has meals served three times a day, rather than to have to scramble for enough food to eat once a day. Until Phiona adjusted to having all this food available, she ate so much, it made her sick.
Phiona has mingled with white people (mzungu) and with people of every race and major nationality and religion as part of meeting people from all over the world. She has also had the opportunity of learning chess by studying the moves of Grandmasters, chess’s elite players.
Phiona has returned to school, among 60 other Katwe students, funded by scholarships paid for by a Santa Barbara, CA couple, Tricia and Norm Popp, in honor of their late son Andrew. Not only does she read and write but her education has advanced to where she has dreams of becoming a doctor or a nurse, while also hoping to become a Grandmaster.
Phiona’s story of hope tells of the phenomenal potential of children living in poverty all over the world, in which a helping hand could lift them from lives of seeming hopelessness, to a level of achievement that could uplift all of mankind.