After Phiona Mutesi lost her father to AIDS when she was 3 years old, she grew accustomed to always feeling hungry and searching for food in one of the world’s worst slums.
When she was 9 years old, she followed her brother to where she had heard porridge was promised to her and other children in the Katwe slum of Uganda. When she arrived, she saw the other children playing chess in a program established by Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian ministry that offers sports programs in areas around the world affected by war or poverty.
“I saw it was a game, and it was attractive,” Mutesi said.
PHOTOS: Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi visits Clark Magnet
Over time, she learned how to play chess, sometimes becoming discouraged by how challenging it was and losing games after just four or five moves. She grew more confident, though, the day she brought a boy to tears after beating him.
She told her story to Clark Magnet High School students on Monday, not long after Glendale Mayor Zareh Sinanyan proclaimed April 28 as “Chess Day” in Glendale in honor of Mutesi.
Also in attendance Monday was Tatev Abrahamyan, a 2006 graduate of Clark Magnet and grandmaster chess player.
“Why is it significant that we’re here at Clark?” said City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian during the school assembly. “Obviously, Glendale has a large community of chess enthusiasts. And one of the bright spots of that scene is your very own Clark Magnet graduate Tatev Abrahamyan.”
Mutesi became Uganda’s junior chess champion by age 11 and later on, the country’s national champion when she was 15. She also represented Uganda in Siberia at the Chess Olympiad competition in 2010.
She is currently touring the United States, and sharing her story, which has already been made into a book called, “The Queen of Katwe” and is in the process of becoming a film by Disney.
Although Mutesi’s mother now lives outside of the slums, Mutesi returns regularly with her coach, Robert Katende, to visit the children still living in the streets.
Katende said the children still residing there have difficulty grasping what he and Mutesi have experienced while abroad.
“When we get back, everyone is waiting for us. What is new? What is there?” he said the children ask.
So far, Mutesi’s favorite places she’s visited have been Disneyland and Seattle’s Space Needle, she told students Monday.
When one student asked her how to improve at playing chess, Mutesi suggested, “You have to play with people stronger than you.”
She also said perseverance is imperative. “Don’t lose hope in whatever situation you’re in,” she said.
Mutesi is currently finishing her secondary-school studies, although many prominent American universities have already offered her scholarships, said Rodney Suddith, president of Sports Outreach Institute.
For more information about Mutesi or to track her travels in the United States and abroad, visit www.QueenofKatwe.com.
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.