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Born: abt 1996
Birthplace: Katwe, Kampala, Uganda
Born: April 1, 1976
Oxford, England, UK
Birthplace: Kiboga, Uganda
Born: March 1, 1983
Mexico City, Distrito Federal, Mexico
Born: abt 1969
Birthplace: Seeta, Uganda
Like most people in Katwe, Phiona does not know it. Birthdays are not recorded anywhere. Few people have calendars and most don't know the date or day of the week. Clocks are a luxury. -ESPN The Magazine
Yes. "My father died of AIDS when I was 3-years-old," says Phiona. "My mother could no longer afford to pay my school fees." (Silent Images Documentary). In an NTV interview, Phiona's mother Harriet commented, "Life became really hard. I was a housewife at the time without a job. After failing to pay rent, I shifted all our property to my sister's home where they got stolen." Harriet then relocated the family to her mother's place in Katwe.
Yes. The Queen of Katwe true story reveals that Phiona Mutesi's sister died just weeks after they buried her father. "After the funeral my family stayed in the village for a few weeks, and one morning when I woke up, my older sister, Juliet, told me she was feeling a headache. We got some herbs and gave them to her, and then she went to sleep. The following morning we found her dead in the bed. That's what I remember," says Phiona. -ESPN The Magazine
Phiona grew up in the slums of Katwe, a crime-ridden area in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda. The East-African country is the second most populous landlocked country following Ethiopia.
Yes. Phiona's mother Harriet, portrayed by Lupita Nyong'o in the Queen of Katwe movie, worries that her constant illnesses are because she's HIV-positive. She's too scared to get tested. Phiona's father passed away from AIDS when she was 3. Phiona hasn't been tested either. -ESPN The Magazine
Yes. In fact-checking Queen of Katwe, we learned that she dropped out of school at age 6 when her mother could no longer afford to send her. "It was very hard to not be in school," says Phiona. "I was in the slums alone. I did not have hope." -Silent Images Documentary
Yes. The Queen of Katwe true story confirms that Phiona nearly died when she was 8 years old. Her mother Harriet believes that she had malaria. After begging for money from her sister, Harriet took Phiona to the hospital and doctors removed fluid from Phiona's spine after she lost consciousness. Two days later she was awake and began to recover. -ESPN The Magazine
Like in the movie, Phiona was introduced to chess at age 9 after secretly following her brother Brian to a meeting of the Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian mission where she observed him playing chess. Missionary Robert Katende, portrayed by David Oyelowo in the movie, welcomed her and taught her how to play. Realizing the kids he was working with weren't all going to play soccer (partially because the parents couldn't afford medical bills for injuries), Katende taught them chess, which he had mastered when he was younger. The lessons took place inside of Agape Sanctuary, a loosely put together church with a listing roof and crumbling walls. At the chess board, everyone was equal. Class, income and education didn't matter. The program had grown to 25 kids when Phiona joined. "I started playing against girls and boys," says Phiona, "then I started beating the boys."
The movie goes on to draw parallels to how the game reflects Phiona's life. One example is Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) liking the act of "Queening" because a pawn survives and makes it all the way across the board, becoming a Queen. The real Phiona Mutesi drew such parallels to her own life as well. -Silent Images Documentary
Yes, it's actually much harsher than what's seen in the film. The Disney Queen of Katwe movie understandably tones down the realities of life in the slums, details that can be found in Tim Crothers' nonfiction book of the same name, on which the movie is based. There is no sewage or sanitation, the stench is appalling. Garbage litters the slums and flies are everywhere. There is an absence of law. Drug use, prostitution, robbery and murder are prevalent, making Katwe one of the worst crime-ridden areas in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda. 50 percent of teen girls are mothers.
Like in the movie, Phiona had to wake up at 5 a.m. each morning to embark on a two-hour trek to fill a jug with water that was safe to drink. Most days consisted of searching for food and usually a meal of rice and tea. She and her family had moved to different locations in Katwe six times in four years, once because they were robbed of everything and another time because their hut was crumbling. -ESPN The Magazine
Yes. "I'm so happy to have Coach Robert as my coach," Phiona said in 2010 at age 15. "He teaches me about chess and God. He has prepared me well for Russia. Every day Coach Robert and I train to make me a better chess player." -Silent Images Documentary
Yes. "At first I didn't know what chess was all about," says Phiona's mother Harriet. "I punished [Phiona's brother] when he joined. I wanted them to go help me sell maize, instead they would at times go for the game. It didn't go down well with me then. ... They then told me about their coach and his good intentions, so I allowed especialy when he introduced himself to me" (NTV). Phiona's mother Harriet heard that Coach Robert Katende was part of an organization run by white people, and she had been told that if Phiona kept going there to play, they would eventually take her away. "But I could not afford to feed her," says Harriet. "What choice did I have?" (ESPN The Magazine)
Coach Robert Katende realized Phiona was a prodigy and had a gift when she started to beat him. He then took her outside the slums and she defeated the privileged boarding-school kids and then the university players. In 2007, she won the Uganda women's junior championship when she was 11. She took the title the following two years until the Uganda Chess Federation ran out of money to stage the event the fourth year. Like in the movie, Phiona has the gift of seeing as many as eight moves ahead. The proof of this is evident by her success as a player. "When I play chess I'm not afraid," Phiona said. "I know that I can win. It doesn't matter if my opponent is a girl, or a boy, or a man, I'm sure I can win" (Silent Images Documentary).
Yes. In researching the Queen of Katwe true story, we learned that some of the real-life locations were used for the filming, including Agape Church (Sanctuary), the ramshackle structure where Robert Katende taught Phiona how to play chess. "Being in Uganda, in the church in Katwe, in the slum that the real Phiona Mutesi emerged from, makes you feel the challenges they faced and the uniqueness of who they are," says actor David Oyelowo, who plays Katende in the movie. According to director Mira Nair, "The city of Kampala and the slum of Katwe are themselves characters in the movie. We used many of the real locations there." Other scenes were shot in South Africa, a country whose infrastructure is more condusive to filming and that Nair says has "the simple architecture and the red earth" that the production needed. -NYTimes.com
Yes. With the help of a grant from the Sports Outreach Institute, Phiona was eventually able to return to school, learning to read and write. After helping her mother with chores, she had to walk 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) to school. "It is a long walk but I must do it to go to school," Phiona said. "I know that my education is very important to my future. ... I love my friends and my teachers." -Silent Images Documentary
Yes. The tournament was held in Sudan and it was the first time that Phiona had been out of Katwe. She was victorious in all four of her matches, as were her two teammates, Ivan and Benjamin, earning their country the team championship. The trip itself was just as overwhelming as the victory. Flying above the clouds, she wondered if the plane was going to reach Heaven. The hotel marked the first time she ever had her own bed or a flushing toilet. Holding a menu was the first time she ever had a choice of what to eat at a meal. "I could never have imagined this world I was visiting," remarked Phiona. "I felt like a queen." -ESPN The Magazine
Yes, even more so than what is shown in the movie. Phiona believes that her talent as a chess player is a precious gift from God. She prays daily. Her coach, Robert Katende, taught her about both God and chess. -Silent Images Documentary
Yes. In the fall of 2010, Phiona was selected to represent Africa at the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia, Russia as the second-seeded player for the Ugandan Team. She was 14 and her nine teammates were all in their 20s. She was to face women in the match, including her first opponent, Canadian national champion Dina Kagramanov, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, the same hometown as chess champion Gary Kasparov. Phiona lost the match, but Kagramanov commented later that she absorbs things like a sponge and posseses a gift that gives her the potential for greatness. The next day she lost a closer match against Elaine Lin Yu-Tong of Taiwan, which she felt she should have won. A third match against Khaled Mona, the women's grandmaster from Egypt, also proved fatal, as did a fourth against Angolan Sonia Rosalina. Coach Katende regretted her No. 2 seeding, but she was learning with each defeat and won her fifth match against an Ethiopian, Haregeweyn Abera, an African teenager like her. -ESPN The Magazine
No, Mira Nair was born in India, but she has had a home in Phiona's birthplace of Kampala, Uganda for more than two decades, so she is very familiar with the area (Variety.com). Nair is married to a Ugandan academic and she has also founded a film school there called Maisha (NYTimes.com). She cast Kampala locals to play Phiona's three oldest siblings, strengthening the movie's connection to the Queen of Katwe true story (The Hollywood Reporter). Before becoming an actress, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Phiona's mother Harriet, had worked for Mira Nair's production company in New York. Nyong'o then went on to hold an administrative position at Nair's film school in Kampala. "I learned I'd rather be a participant when I acted in one of the films the students made," said Nyong'o (NYTimes.com).
"[Chess] has given me an opportunity to go back to school," Phiona told CNN's News Room in 2014. "Chess gave me hope, where by now I'm having a hope of becoming a doctor, and I'm having now a hope of becoming a grandmaster." She went on to earn the title of candidate master after competing in a world championship in Turkey. Phiona's mother Harriet has been able to move her family into a permanent home (pictured below). "Life has changed so much," says Harriet. "We never really had a home to call our own. We would move from place to place. We have a home and land to cultivate. Unlike before when life was really hard. My children are all in school now. I thank God for this life" (UTV).
Learn more about the Queen of Katwe true story by watching a Phiona Mutesi interview and documentary below. Also view a Robert Katende documentary directed by Queen of Katwe director Mira Nair.