The Queen of Katwe


I’m coaching some of the child actors for a film being shot in Kampala called the Queen of Katwe. Its a success story about a Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi who learnt how to play chess and  has since gone on to became  the youngest African chess champion. Its a success story that we definately need because most of the people of the world still see Africa as the ‘dark continent’ full of hunger and disease. It is true we have those challenges but there are so many wonderful stories of people who have risen out of adversity to become highly successful people.

In his book David and Goliath, Martin Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) explores when, and why, apparent disadvantages – poverty, personal setbacks, military weakness – turn out to be advantages, and when advantages, like wealth or status, aren’t what they seem. “The fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate,” Gladwell writes. “It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.

Since relocating to Uganda I’ve realized how resilient Ugandans can be. I remember when I first arrived in the country I was travelling to Mubende and the taxi broke down. Nobody blinked an eye or complained about it. They patiently waited for the taxi to be repaired so we could continue on our way. I on the other hand was agitated by the delay, which took over 5 hours to repair. As I looked around me I wondered why others were not displaying the same irritation as me and how people could put up with it.

Its a catch 22 I think. We have become apathetic to for example, the poor quality of our products Chinese accepting it with the phrase ‘ah China’ but not demanding for improvements. At the same time this patience and acceptance of ‘what is’ allows us to accept things as they are and not spend too much time complaining about things we cannot change.

In relation to being the underdog which I think many Africans are because we don’t have access to the opportunities that many living in the West have, we have become more resourceful and creative. Phiona forced through circumstance went looking for food and in the process learnt how to play chess which has now made her an African champion.

Life on the continent is definately not easy. The global economic system deliberately I belief, hold people back from reaching their full potential. Whether its limited access to health or inadequate nutrition the people of Uganda are finding a way to make what they have work for them and when they do get the opportunity can challenge the more advantaged.

Growing up my mother would always remind us that we had to be 3 times better than the English because she knew we would not be ‘given’ the opportunities an English child would. That we would have to fight for everything we have because we were Black.

Its very easy then to perceive oneself as being inferior to other people. A student of mine who I am teaching as part of a leadership programme at In Movement – Art for Social Change, stated that ‘white people were better because they are more organised’. This week I asked her if this was a positive and healthy opinion to have. Her response was ‘no’. So my work is to inspire and build capacity of young people to acknowledge that even though they may not have the opportunities many other young people have they still have the potential to be successful.

The challenge we have is to harness their raw potential but as Gladwell points out in his book, just because you come from difficult circumstances doesn’t mean you can’t have the life you dream about.