In love with the Queen of Katwe (Not exactly Lupita Nyong’o)

I have just finished watching Queen of Katwe for the second time, this time round with mom, and I’m sure that I will watch it again. FYI I didn’t just re-watch it because of Lupita Nyong’o, the daughter of professor Nyong’o from the Lake Victoria.


I watched it again because I’m in love with the Queen of Katwe.

Even the chilly Nairobi weather isn’t enough to take away that African pride

There is something that just keeps pulling me back to this movie like a magnet. Not sure whether it’s because of it’s character, it’s story, setting, it’s numerous lessons, or the “Back to Life” soundtrack by Alicia Keys, or both. For those of you who are yet to watch it, almost a year after it was released I will give you a short summary. And before I go any further you should know that it’s a true story.

The movie is based on the book, The Queen of Katwe: A story of life, chess and one extradonary girl’s dream of becoming a Grandmaster by Tim Crothers. A Ugandan slumgirl, Phiona Mutesi learns to play chess and becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her performance at World Chess Olympics.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) was born in 1996 in Katwe, the largest of Kampala’s eight slums. When she was only three years old her father died of HIV/AIDS, and later on followed her older sister Julia, who died of unknown ilness. At nine due to hardships in the hood (sounding like an American of Color. Funny nowadays you just can’t say ni***, unless you’re a real ni***), she was forced to drop out of school. Her poor mother, Hakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) could not afford school fees and uniform-pity. She started selling boiled maize in the streets to boost on whatever her mom brought home from the market where she traded.
Following her brother one day she discovers this project run by Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian and Sports Mission. It was an after-school program run by one Robert Katende (David Oyelowo-He should be Nigerian) where she starts playing chess. She becomes a pro…later returns to school to continue with her education.

Watching this particular movie just opens up my emotional being, Ieaving me very vulnerable. Some scenes just left my eyes wet with tears, then come some that left me smiling to myself. Most African cities have slums and even here in Kenya we have a number of them. Personally I happened to live in one, Kibera in Nairobi for a period of about two months and I will tell you without fear of contradiction that life in the slums is not easy. Don’t ask me how I found myself in there. Sometimes life can be tricky, especially for a young boy trying to be a man in the streets of Nairobi. But come to think of it, I’m actually glad I did because at the end of the day I learned what you can never understood unless you have lived there.

It’s been years since my time in Kibera slum or Kibich as it’s popularly known but the memory still lingers on. But how can I forget! How can anyone forget!

You know the first day I went to Kibich I thought I would die. Not to say that I came from a better place myself. I felt sick. Everything was out of place. The toilets were unaccessible. Poopoo all over around the large, heavily eroded hole (the corroded piece of iron sheet that covered the mud-walled structure leaked, letting in the rain water). I was told it was an improvement from the previous “flying toilets” where one relieved his bowels in a paper bag, waits for nightfall and throws it away with all of his or her might. Woe to you if the the toilet hits you. Another huddle came when it was time to bathe. The “bathroom” was a couple of logs laid across a very fast flowing trench with black colored water that released a stench that can only be compared to that of decaying flesh. The tricky part came when you lost your balance (if you are lucky you will only get up with fingers covered in human faeces) or when the soap-the only piece you had between you and poverty, slipped through your fingers and dropped into the stream. There were many scaring experiences that I had to live with. I had to adapt very fast and with time I even made friends there.

And watching this movie I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of life in Katwe to that of Kibera, and many other slums here in Kenya like Mathare, and even Njenga-stone throw away from my sisters shop.

The slums are full of hardships but at the same time full of strong people. In there we have beautiful people, brilliant like Phiona and her mom. The talented Phiona just highlighted the amount of talent and gifts that exist in the slums but unfortunately most governments overlook them. Most governments only start noticing the slums when there are tragedies like fires (most common) or when they need votes during elections. The politicians know very well that our dear brothers and sisters in these informal settlement are the people who wake up to vote during elections. For some reason, the middle and the upper class guys don’t register as voters, let alone participate in voting. Maybe they feel like they’re doing everyone else a favor, who knows.

Phiona played chess, a rare sport in Uganda at the time, so well and compited against some of the world’s best. Her mom too was wonderful and even my own mom couldn’t help but admire her. A widow at a young age but couldn’t re-marry. She decided to concentrate on raising her kids. Yes life was tough but she didn’t give up. She was so strong, just like my own mother. It made me really appreciate mom, and women in general, especially those that would do anything, even walk naked and barefoot just to see their kids survive.

A young mother looking after her child in Mukuru kwa Njenga slum

People like Phiona’s coach, Robert Katende also motivated me in ways you you can never understand. Robert, a civil engineer by profession who has a beautiful young wife and unemployed. With all his qualifications he’s finding it hard to find a job in Kampala city and depends on his wife for everything. When he is not tarmacking, looking for a job, he coaches chess and plays football. He later travels the world taking Phiona, his favorite player to tournaments. He likes it so much that when one firm he had applied a job in earlier on offers him an opportunity, he politely declines. A move that doesn’t go so well with his wife, but she loves him, and decides to support him. A “moral” lesson to womenfolk.

A slum is just like any other place, full of life and vibrance. There are so many wonderful people, full of ambition and always striving to come out of there. Some people like Phiona were born there but others find themselves there because of various factors like economical, security-low (favourable environment for lawless individuals) and… What’s the other factor?

At the end of 124 minutes that the movie runs, I had learnt various life lessons. Life is complicated with lots of challenges but if you are strong enough and determined, you will come out the victor, just like Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur (will my brother Vitalis ever reach that level, maybe play for the great Manchester United). Phiona finally bought her family a house, though old-looking, but better compared to the one they came from.

I love the queen of Katwe, and I will watch her again. I will watch Lupita again.

2 thoughts on “In love with the Queen of Katwe (Not exactly Lupita Nyong’o)

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