Disclaimer: Disney and ABC invited me to Los Angeles on an all-expenses paid trip, in exchange for my coverage of these events, which included Disney’s Queen of Katwe red carpet premiere and this interview with the real life inspirations behind Queen of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende. As always, all opinions are my own.
As I mentioned earlier this week, Queen of Katwe is a movie that touches your heart and NEEDS to be seen. It will change you. It will give your older children a unique glimpse into the harships of life they may have never even heard about, one that will make them better for it.
It opens in theaters EVERYWHERE today!
But what about the real lives behind the story? What about Katwe? Yes, these are real people and a very real place in Uganda.
“Queen of Katwe” is the colorful true story of a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
In the film, 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi is seen growing up in the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, with her widowed mother Harriet, 2 brothers and an older sister. It’s hard to watch and realize that there is such a place that exists. Even harder when you are told by Director Mira Nair that they shot all the scenes in Uganda.
They told the story exactly where it needed to be told from – Katwe. This is no Hollywood backdrop, but real life.
Phiona’s existence largely depends on her and her family selling maize. Hunger is the norm. It is that hunger which ultimately introduces Phiona to the game of chess, and changed her life. With the promise of a free meal, Robert Katende begins teaching several Katwe kids the game of chess. Phiona eventually joins in and it’s quickly realized that she has not only a knack for the game, but is a natural prodigy.
Though I had the privilege of interviewing Academy award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o and newcomers Madina Nalwanga and Martin Kabanza earlier in the day, imagine what it was like to meet the real inspirations behind the film. Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende, her mentor, walked through the doors on the Disney lot, and I’m sure it was as surreal for them as it was amazing for us. In fact, I’m sure of it.
English is not their first language, but when we sat down with Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende, we heard their every word, even if we couldn’t quite make it out. We felt their emotions just by looking in their eyes. I imagine this experience was overwhelming for them, after all, in just a few hours from when we sat down, they would be heading to Hollywood to walk the red carpet and see their lives on the big screen. I remember my first red carpet – THIS was something entirely different for them.
This is their story.
What life lessons do you think children and adults can learn from chess?
Robert Katende: There are several, actually, just generally in life and there are many values that we meet on a daily basis in our lives; In a child’s life you can involve them well to the platform of chess. You can tackle abstractive thinking, problem solving, decision making, weighing options, and even responsibility because chess kind of mentors you in finding value and where you have to get comfortable with your decisions, and don’t simply make moves.
You should have a plan, you should have an objective, an activity objective. It gives you an opportunity to where you can have ideas and try to figure out how to bring them to reality. So you must get input in the integration of these values and principles from the game into your lifestyle.
Is the movie as true to life as it could be?
Phiona Mutesi: Well, I liked it when I saw it. I couldn’t think that I was watching myself. But it was my first time in the big theater. I was on the Red Carpet; I think it was just my first time. I’ve never been in such a situation. But I’m like, come into that, I feel like I shouldn’t be there, like, shouldn’t it be someone else?
Can you talk about mentorship and how that played a role in your life?
Robert Katende: Yeah, surely it is something remarkable. I strongly believe maybe my general team have really done it. I have learned on being a father. Before I got a family, I was more in a training, so they really taught me so much about tolerance, patience and embracing each one’s ability.
Because when it comes to the programs, it’s not so much entailed on chess but it’s more of focusing on an individual. And if the child is different- they have different abilities; different perspectives of life, and now you find yourself in this dilemma where you have to look at each child as an individual. And to me, it’s more of a community investment. You really choose to be in there and see how this important to them.
And then I did find where is the strength of this one like there is- they are now, they are the ones leading most of the programs because they have turned out to be good leaders. But I remember ten years back, the good example was Richard. So this is the young boy who volunteered to keep our chess support current from the beginning. And then, he was keeping this chess support, and then one time, almost like six months, he came on and said, “Coach, I think we need to find somewhere else to keep our board.”
Why? And then he said, “No, when my uncle comes back home, he comes back drunk, and he fights with auntie, and so they will break our board.” Now, this really hit me and I almost shed tears because for him, it was for the board, and me, I was moved to, what kind of trauma does this child go through at home? So it takes you beyond what you think, and that sometimes you, even you go- when it comes to mentorship, I’ve many times find myself going beyond the actual child, and going even to the people behind the child.
Because some of the issues are actually, imagine, from the guardian, or the uncle, or the auntie, they have that role that they play. Sometimes once you see this child going through, they’re just symptoms, and they have a cause behind it. And sometimes you cannot keep on addressing the symptoms and that forces you to go beyond, and then reach out to even the guardians. Those who don’t have them, I got an opportunity to get to adopt them so that I am with them now.
You can find them in my home in the hotel, and there are about eight kids over there. We sometimes even mentor them who know how to play chess. So it’s now more like a big family. But mentorship is not something really you can just say it’s on and then off. It’s a an ongoing process. And it’s not like, I will come and teach you, and then go away, but you allow them to learn your weaknesses, to learn how you face difficulties, how you respond to them.
It’s not a short case kind of situation, but you’re more like living with them on a daily basis, and they learn the positive way how to react to grief; how to respond to calamites if they occur. So you are their only model. They’re there to pick every lesson from you- so they become part of you. You open your home; sometimes I tell people that you have to allow them and give them–.
They are there; they are part of you; they give you a call; they come; they say, “coach, we need to come.” So it is an ongoing selfless living, you know, but for the purpose of, trying to see how best how you can support in terms of—-.
Can you tell us where you started with the pioneers and where you are now with your chess academy?
Robert Katende: Yeah, I started, in 2002 and, it really started stabilizing in 2004. There were six, the kids, I have six and I’ve been dealing with them for over now twelve years. The way I keep some of them, in the age, like Phiona, had, like, one year and a half. She was nine, and now she’s twenty. So they have now become young adults.
And when I took them they had not even schooling. He’s now qualified as a physics and math teacher. He’s now, he’s just graduating, June, commencing. Benjamin, Phiona, he’s just completing high school to go to university next year. So it’s really a remarkable journey, for me to see them. And, besides they have professional kind of goals, they are naturally becoming leaders.
And they reach out to the program that, like Phiona, it’s not just like coincidence, but it’s like a strategy on starting to give them some sense of responsibility, and then also enabling them to realize that they have something they can really, that there is something that they can offer at even their lower level. So they are naturally in this that they should grow. So this, right now, I sit, and we instruct and we plan together with the kids who were the kids then- now they are adults, and we just sit and plan, and the consequence, we can do this, and so I will get on this, and then they bring their report.
I’m so grateful because I kind of see myself like I have not planned. Like, even right now, we are weighing all this with over eight kids packed in.
What advice would you give to a young girl that’s scared of stepping out?
Phiona Mutesi: Well, what I know, it’s not, like, as well problems- I’ll say, most people when they’re like, they’re having problems, but it just takes hope. Have hope in everything you’re doing, and just be hard working, and just approve about yourself; you feel like, no, I don’t wanna be like this. Have a dream, I want to be this in my life. So that, really, right, you’re like, I don’t want to be like this.
Phiona, When you feel defeated like you felt in Russia, when you’re crying and devastated. How do you react in those situations?
Phiona Mutesi: My reaction whenever I would lose a game, most of the time I would cry, like, maybe today, with the pain of pressure, that’s when I cry most. Like whenever I was in Uganda, I could do most of my games, so here I am; I’m coming to Russia; I thought everything is going to small. Yet, I forgot about that this before, that is different experience from Uganda and , so from that, I think I got an experience- a great one, and got to learn everything, so it doesn’t affect me anymore. Whenever I lose, it’s just part of the game. I just had to learn from that.
Robert Katende (on Fear): Fear – It hinders a lot in many cases especially for the children; that they have nothing to relate to- so no one has ever done it. They cannot connect . So it’s more like, no, you step out. You be there first. You take that responsibility. We just offer have real-life situations.
Then the question now is, what do you think is going to change us? You see yourself; Ask the person, what’s going to change this turnaround, to make this happen. So it’s like you start to instill a sense of discipline and responsibility. You need to see it from their perspective; not look at all- I wish my aunt had done this; oh, I wish my mom was available, but and my personal life, I tell them, look at me.
I’m a typical orphan; I never knew that things would ever change. But in every case, I had to keep on trying. I’d rather try than fail to try, and then I say it didn’t work out. There are moments when I go- I wanted so much to do, I was really good in academics, but I can imagine what you are reading today. You have exams in two weeks, but you’re not sure whether you’re going to see them because you don’t have, you don’t realize the future.
So you ask many times , why should I really? If it doesn’t happen, I will have done my part. So that’s the kind of approach I take.
I had the absolute honor of asking the final question during the interview.
What has surprised you the most in bringing your story to the big screen?
Robert Katende: I would say the whole experience was quite surprising because it’s something which I could never have imagined in my life. And two, it just proved to me a sense of awareness that you get encouragement of what you’re doing because you step out to do this and I will find myself just doing that without even knowing, that it could be anything big, even in the country itself. So to me, that was remarkable and quite, even up to nights–still a , because when I look back to my childhood…
This morning, in fact, when I was at the hotel, I was trying to calm down, and I was trying, you know, like, to go through the– . But, uh, even the whole country now will try to ask, where is Robert? And yet before, I remember the times when I would even call radio stations seeking for support for education, and no one would ever bother. You’ve got to look for jobs; you will know no one knows you. So it’s quite amazing to see what- that stands out to me.
And I’m so grateful for the ladies. It’s quite interesting that even this house is full of them. I have the trip, and I have a special place in my heart, right from my grandma, to my aunties, and I think it’s the actual reason why God has given me my little task.
From the slums of Katwe to the red carpet of Hollywood.
Their story is not one I’ll ever forget and I hope that it will inspire millions.
Read my full Queen of Katwe movie review and find out what parents should know before they go.
Now let’s take a look at Queen of Katwe, shall we?
QUEEN OF KATWE opens in theaters EVERYWHERE TODAY!
See what else I was up to last week in Hollywood (more coming this week):
- Director Mira Nair Interview
- Lupita Nyong’o Interview
- Red Carpet Premiere of Disney’s Queen of Katwe
- Interview with ONCE UPON A TIME Creators and Executive Producers
HELP A CHILD IN AFRICA
In the spirit of QUEEN OF KATWE, HSN is excited to partner with Soular Backpacks!
For every Soular Backpack purchased, a solar-powered backpack is given to a child in Africa to help study at night. Currently, children are using kerosene lamps, which can cause health complications. Soular Backpacks use natural energy from the sun during a child’s walk home from school. Make a difference today: http://gohsn.co/gh6NNz
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