• Checkmate: Talking About Overcoming Adversity in English

    Whenever we read the paper, we generally extract the information we need without being moved by many, if indeed any, of the articles. Today, however, was an exception for me as I was genuinely touched by a piece I read in the UK Guardian newspaper about an Ugandan girl of humble origins who is on her way to becoming one of the finest chess players or Grandmasters in the country.
    Before we read the article, let’s think about some of the issues it raises:
    Discussion Questions
    Have you ever overcome a situation of adversity?
    Do you think women have achieved full equality with men in the country in which you live?
    Is there a group in your country you feel are unrepresented and maybe even that their rights are denied? If so, what can be done to improve the situation of this group?
    Grammar Questions:
    In journalism this is called a color piece, meaning that it focuses on descriptions and impressions rather than analysis. As a result, the article in rich in adjectives. See if you can spot ten examples.
    Pick out one example of a comparative adjective and one example of a superlative adjective?
    What is the most used tense in this article: Past simple or present simple?
    Pick out two examples of direct and two examples of indirect speech in the text.
    Find two synonyms for the word adversary in the text.

    Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi leads chess revolution from the slums

    by Xan Rice in Kampala

    Despite background the 15-year-old girl is already country’s number two player and has competed at World Chess Olympiad.

    Photo of Phiona Mutesi by Xan Rice for The Guardian.

    In a rickety church in a Ugandan slum, a girl’s hand thrusts forward and a black bishop falls. The girl shows no emotion, though she knows the end is near. Striking quickly, silently, the black queen is toppled, and then the king. Only then does she smile.

    “You attacked too much,” she tells the boy sitting opposite her on the wooden bench, a homemade board between them.

    Phiona Mutesi is 15. She has just finished primary school and is still learning to read. Her family is so poor they have been evicted from tiny, rented shacks more times than she can remember. She is about as far as you could get from the typical chess player in Uganda – doctors, bankers, and their children who attend elite schools.

    Yet Mutesi already has a strong claim to be the best female player in the country. Last September she competed in the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia as Uganda’s No 2, the only girl in a team of university students and working women. On her return she triumphed in the richest and most prestigious local tournament, defeating the country’s top-ranked player along the way.

    So unlikely and swift has been her rise – she has had little formal training and plays largely on instinct – that some of Uganda’s chess officials are now whispering that Mutesi may not be being unrealistic when she says in a soft voice: “I want to be grandmaster.” That is still a long way off. But it may not be as improbable as the achievements that she and the other children of Katwe slum in Kampala have already achieved.

    “They’ve caused a chess revolution here,” says Godfrey Gali, general secretary of the Uganda Chess Federation.

    Born in 1995 in Katwe, a vast slum where streams of sewage crisscross the dirt paths, Mutesi was three when her father died. Her sister died soon afterwards. Mutesi’s mother worked hard, rising at 3am to go the market to buy avocados, eggplants and pumpkins to resell, but money was always tight. After one year of primary school Mutesi was forced to drop out, along with her brothers, and sell boiled maize in the slum.

    They were just a few of many children in Katwe compelled to work rather than learn – children that Robert Katende, a 28-year-old Ugandan employed by the US charity Sports Outreach Institute, was trying to help. Realising his football project was not for everyone, Katende decided to teach chess to a few children. Mutesi’s brother was among them. One day she followed him to Agape church, where the games took place. She was nine at the time.

    “I had never heard of chess. But I liked how the pieces looked,” she says.

    Mutesi was a quick, determined learner. Every night she practiced against her brothers, a kerosene lamp in their shack illuminating a board borrowed from Katende. Within a year she was regularly beating “Coach Robert”. He was impressed – “I could see how she planned many moves ahead” – but not surprised. Other children in his class had already proved that growing up poor was no hindrance to being a good player, and may even have been an advantage. “These kids in the slums are used to thinking ‘How will I get through the day’,” Katende says. “They are survivors, and chess is a game of survival.”

    After initial resistance from the chess federation, which had insisted that the national junior championships were for schoolchildren, but not “children from the streets”, Katende was allowed to enter a team from Katwe in 2005.

    For most of the children it was the first time they had left the slums.

    “At the tournament they were isolated, and some of the other competitors thought they were dirty,” Katenda recalls. “In fact they were wearing their best clothes and looking as smart as they could.”

    In 2007, aged 11, Mutesi entered for the first time. Some of her opponents were twice her age. She won the competition. She defended her title the following year. Though tournaments have not been held since, Mutesi and some of her Katwe team-mates were moving on to bigger things. In 2009 she and two boys from Katwe travelled to Juba, in South Sudan, for a regional children’s tournament involving 16 countries. It was the first time she been to an airport, had her own room, or ordered from a menu.

    She won all her games, and the girls title. The boys were undefeated too; together they won the team prize. That alone was not groundbreaking – though a minnow in world terms, Uganda is rated third among the chess-playing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

    But the fact that Mutesi and her two team-mates were all from very poor backgrounds, with little or no access to theory, was unprecedented.

    “In Uganda chess has always been seen as a game for the rich, like golf,” says Gali. “Now the kids from the slums are among the best players in country.”

    At the Olympiad in Siberia Mutesi was trailed by American and Dutch television crews who had been alerted to her remarkable story. She struggled, losing her first four games – opponents included the Canadian No 1 and an Egyptian grandmaster – before managing a win. Her consolation was meeting her chess hero, Gary Kasparov.

    “I performed badly, but next time will be better,” says Mutesi.

    Signs are good that it will. She was undefeated at the year-end tournament in Kampala, beating most of her Olympiad team-mates, and taking the first prize of £130. Some of it she used to buy hair extensions and some to pay off her school fees. The rest she offered to Katende. He refused it, but helped her to buy four mattresses and a quadruple bunk bed. Now, for the first time, Mutesi and her family don’t have to share two flimsy mattresses on her floor.

    “Phiona has become something in the country, from nothing,” her mother, Harriet, says.

    Katende smiles and says: “In chess, it does not matter where you come from. Only where you put the pieces.”

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