Right move: Chess gives Ugandan slum children hope

Updated 06 February 2013

Right move: Chess gives Ugandan slum children hope

Sitting in a dimly lit room in the run-down Kampala suburb of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi stares fixedly at the chessboard in front of her as she ponders the next move in her improbable journey.
“Chess has changed my life,” Mutesi says, shifting the thick-framed glasses perched on her nose.
“Before I didn’t have hope but now I have hope — I can become a doctor and a grandmaster.”
Once forced to live rough after her father died when she was a toddler, Mutesi has risen from the streets to play in international tournaments from Sudan to Siberia.
Just 16 years old, she is the first female Ugandan to reach the level of candidate master and the country’s reigning under-20 champion-- and now film studio Disney has bought the option to turn her story into a movie.
Despite her success, Mutesi never set out to play chess.
At nine, she began following her older brother to a nascent chess club — not to play the game but for the free cup of porridge that was on offer.
“I then asked myself ‘what is this game chess?’ and started to play,” she says.
Soon her talent shone through and she began beating all comers — often older boys and girls — as she rose steadily to the Ugandan youth team and the chance to compete in chess’s most prestigious tournament — the biennial Olympiad.
“I never expected to be where I am now,” Mutesi says.
The man who introduced Phiona — and other children in Katwe’s slums — to chess is her coach Robert Katende.
A former footballer, in 2003 Katende swapped balls for boards when he hit on the unusual idea of teaching street kids chess — even if none of the children had ever heard of the game.
“I was looking for a platform to reach out to the kids, so I got my old chessboard and came with it down to the slums,” says 30-year-old Katende.
Typically taught only in Uganda’s more elite private schools, Katende says that chess caught on quickly.
For impoverished slum children struggling daily for food and shelter, he says, the game can teach some useful life lessons and give them a sense of much needed self-confidence.
“It’s not just a game, it’s a way of transforming lives,” Katende says.
“You face challenges and you have to think of the best move — for children who might have become petty thieves or criminals it makes them disciplined.”
Since the early days of playing in the open with makeshift boards and pieces made from bottle tops, Katende’s chess club has come a long way.
Despite limited resources, the club’s 63 members — some as young as four — cram onto benches in a rented room that serves as a clubhouse. Although battered, there are now enough boards to go around.
Lying on his stomach in a grubby red football shirt, Michael Talemwa, 11, fingers a pawn as he tries to block an attack from his opponent.
Like many of the children crowding around the chess boards, Talemwa had few opportunities before he found out about the chess club.
“I used to be home alone with nothing to do until a friend came along and said we should come and play chess,” Talemwa says.
“I didn’t know anything about it and told him I couldn’t play but he convinced me.”
Now, after playing for two years and watching the meteoric rise of club members like Phiona Mutesi, Talemwa says he dreams of emulating their success.

“I feel so happy when I hear one of our friends has achieved such a great level and I hope that I too can make it that far.”

Arabs ‘crazy’ about British royals

Updated 10 min 50 sec ago

Arabs ‘crazy’ about British royals

  • Cafe Diana's owner Abdul Basset Daoud named his shop 30 years ago after the late Princess Diana 30, who lived across the road in Kensington Palace
  • People from the Middle East really respect the Queen and not just because she is old, says one Arab restaurant owner

LONDON:  The cakes are ready, the flowers are ordered and the drinks are on ice. At the Cafe Diana in London’s Notting Hill, all was in place for a celebration marking the birth of Britain’s newest royal, the baby boy born Monday  morning to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

“Of course, we’re having a party. We always do,” said manager Fouad Fattah.

The same was true a few kilometers away at the Fatoush restaurant, where manager Alaa William Chamas kept a watchful eye on the news headlines and a lookout for extra police traffic heading towards at St Mary’s Hospital, the venue for the royal birth. “We’re expecting a busy evening,”  he said. 

While an element of celebration might be expected at some British establishments,  Cafe Diana and Fatoush are Middle Eastern-owned and run. But they are embracing the latest royal event —  as well as the forthcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle next month —  with all the enthusiasm of the most ardent monarchists.

“Are Arab people interested in the British royal family? Are you kidding? They are crazy about them!” said Lebanese-born Fattah, 55, who throws a party for his customers on every notable royal occasion.


Royal neighbor 

Cafe Diana forged a very real link with the royal family 30 years ago,  when the owner, Abdul Basset Daoud, decided to name his cafe after his royal neighbor, the late Princess Diana, who lived across the road in Kensington Palace.

He put up the sign at around Christmas time in 1988 and to his amazement, she came in two weeks later. She had seen it as she drove out with her bodyguard and it had made her smile, she told him, so she decided to drop in for a coffee.

It was not her only visit. She came again a couple of weeks later and Basset Daoud asked her if he out up a photograph of her. She returned the next day with a black and white studio. Then she began dropping in regularly, sometimes alone and often with her sons for a full English breakfast.

“The boys loved it. We are not a five-star restaurant. This is just an ordinary  neighborhood coffee shop. She wanted the princes  to experience things like normal kids,” said Fatah. 

“She didn’t mind queuing like any other customer. She usually sat with her back to the room. The other customers did not realise who she was until she stood up and they got a real shock.” 

And that, he insists, is why Arabs love the British royals.

“It’s because we can see them. They are not far away from the people. When the Queen goes out, there are just two cars with her, not 200. If the Queen goes past and you wave at her,  she waves back. You can shout out to the royals and they just smile.”

The walls of the cafe are now covered in  photographs of the princess, both formal portraits and informal snaps with the staff, and letters thanking them for sending her flowers for her birthday. The last is dated July 1, 1997, just two months before she died.

“Everyone who comes here wants to talk about the royal family,” said Fattah. “There was a lady from Kuwait who came in recently and she was crying her eyes out. I gave her a cup of tea and asked what was wrong. She said, ‘I loved Diana so much’.”


Arab love

It is much the same at Fatoush, a popular Lebanese restaurant on Edgeware Road, in the heart of what has been dubbed “Arab Street.”

Chatting over coffee, manager Alaa William (“Yes, that really is my name”) Chamas was adamant. 

“Arab people LOVE the British royal family. If they are living here, they really care about them. If they are visiting, they just want to talk about how they visited Buckingham Palace,” he said.

“I’m not interested!” boomed an unseen voice from the kitchen. “Be quiet!”  Chamas boomed back. Having admonished his wayward employee, Chamas returned to his theme.

“When there is a wedding in the royal family, the public are invited to share it. Now there is a new baby and they share this with the people.

“People from the Middle East really respect the Queen and not just because she is old. Some other rulers are also old but nobody thinks much about them. In some places, the people fear their rulers. Here they see that the Queen is loved.”

At the nearby Simit Sarayi cafe, manager Mukhtar Mohamed agreed. “It’s because the British royal family seem so accessible. You can visit Buckingham Palace — actually look round where they live! Arab visitors who have been coming to London for years follow all the news about the royals and they buy every souvenir they can get their hands on. If it’s got a picture of the Queen or Diana or William and Kate  on it, they want it. With Prince Harry getting married in a few weeks, they are buying like crazy.”

Back at Cafe Diana, Fattah is recalling a poignant visit by Harry a few years after the death of his mother.

“He must have been about 16 or 17. He was with his uncle, Prince Andrew, and he had just been to the barber next door to get his hair cut. On the way back to the car, he put his head round the door of the cafe and said, ‘Hi.’ Then he looked at all the photos and smiled and left.”

In four weeks’ time, Prince Harry is getting married. Cue for another party? “Absolutely!”