International Women’s Day 2020: Queen of Katwe

“Hey Phiona, how is your life?”

“It is fine!”

That banter strikes out to me — not because I doubt that Phiona’s life is fine — but because that serves as the equivalence of our mundane ‘how are you’ greetings. Only later when the same question reappeared — but met only with Phiona’s silence — I understood that, indeed, her life was fine then. Understandably enough, these days when people say “I’m good” or “I’m fine”, it translates into: “I still manage to cope with the adversities in my life.”

The adversities in Phiona’s lives, though, are some of the most unbearable series of challenges I have ever witnessed. They seem to depict what people mean when they say, “Other people have it harder than you.” Even more rightfully so, since this movie is an adaptation of the Phiona Mutesi’s true story, the girl from Uganda’s slum of Katwe who rose to fame and became the country’s Queen of Chess.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Phiona’s mother, Nakku (Lupita Nyong’o), is a single mother of four: Night, Phiona, Brian and toddler Richard. Being a single mother itself is already worth of praises for the challenges it bears, let alone with four children to take care of. Their life is one that of a day-to-day basis – always impoverished, oftentimes in hunger and occasionally homeless. They have to fight, nonetheless.

Nakku refuses to remarry after her husband’s death and she abhors her firstborn daughter when she leaves to live with a man. She is strongly against the conventional idea that as women they should just choose the easy way out by making a living from bearing children.

Left only with Phiona and Brian to count on, she makes ends meet with the two selling maize across the town. Being the strong mother full of perseverance that she is, dignity comes first to her — even if that costs her the neighbours’ chirps on how she is no better for holding on to her shallow pride.

Likewise, Nakku’s stubbornness is the first thing Coach Robert Katende sees in Phiona. Unlike some people who would negatively connote ‘stubbornness’, he regards this as a virtuous quality of the said child prodigy. He trains her and he goes the extra mile in convincing Nakku every time to allow Phiona (and Brian) participate in various international chess tournaments.

In portraying Phiona’s life, the film also offers bits of her mother’s struggle, her sister’s responsibility as a firstborn daughter and just what and how big a sacrifice the women in their communities have to make in order to survive and live.

Education and Children

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) with her coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo)
(Source: Rotten Tomatoes)

Dig, dig, dig.

Digging to climb, digging to eat, digging graves.

She must never have to dig as I did.

The winners do not stand alone. There are always opportunities taken, lessons learnt and support given from the people around them. Robert and Sara Katende take the cake in this story.

Sports coach Robert’s simple yet rejuvenating greetings, “Good morning, Pioneers!” to his students is music to one’s ears. It is the sound of hope that embraces them, just like the warm rays of sunshine washing and putting a smile on their face.

Despite his own struggles to ensure their daughter’s future, he rejects his dream job offer as an engineer supervisor so that he can stay with his students, the Pioneers. Meanwhile, his wife Sara – who is also a schoolteacher – voluntarily tutors the children mathematics and improves their literacy in their house. On top of that, they always welcome any of their students in need to stay over and live at their house for as long as they need to, including Phiona.

Coach Robert Katende with the Pioneers
(Source: Rotten Tomatoes)

Ketchup is the greatest thing that’s ever been invented. I want a lake filled with ketchup!

You know how it warms even the coldest of hearts when such passionate teachers and youthful children meet. Their shared moments are always fun and priceless.

Life Itself

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose — but living is much more than that. To live is to learn; and most often than not, we have to learn about life itself in order to live.

It is about our losses and swallowing our pride without being scared of trying again. It is also about having our dreams crushed and revisiting our beliefs, but most importantly, it is about believing that we belong.

After all, in the last game, it is Robert’s reminder for Phiona that makes her believe that, indeed, she belongs wherever her dreams take her to and wherever she takes her dreams to. Our dreams might take us to places, but it is us who take the journey and keep the engine running.

Losses happen for all of us, but what matters, is when you reset all the pieces, and play again.

Phiona’s affirmation that she belongs is important because she – just like any of us – needs constant reminders that whenever she wins, she earns it. She defeats her opponents, not her opponents let her win.

This resonates even more for women, no matter young or old or whatever backgrounds we come from, because as women we almost always are told where our place is, what our job is, what we can do and what we cannot do, what we are rightful to know and what we should not bother about.

There are many things that you can take away from this film. Especially if you have a fascination for chess, this movie will definitely entertain you more. But even if you’re chess-illiterate — like me! — you might even feel the spirit of learning how to play chess – just for the sake of trying something new – lingering around you by the end of this movie.

Happy IWD 2020!

Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016) trailer

Phiona: I fear certain things will never change.

Robert: I, too, thought things could never change, but they did.

Queen of Katwe (2016) is a celebration of chess, life and women. Inspirational movies and quotes are sometimes cliché, but this film definitely offers more than a mere inspiration. The next time you think you can’t do something, watch this and reflect on how you’ve always made it this far. Don’t checkmate yourself.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone!

Director Mira Nair at TIFF
(Source: IMDb)

To get to know Phiona Mutesi more, you can watch this 7-minute video below. You can also read the Queen of Katwe book and visit her website here.

P.S. I want to thank SA Sustainability Team for the perfect choice of the movie. I would also like to offer my condolences to Nikita Pearl Waligwa, starring as the joyful character of Gloria in the film, who died of brain tumour at only 15 years old on February 16th, 2020. Rest in peace.

Written by Lilian Angelia

Cover photo credits: Rotten Tomatoes

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