World competitor Phiona Mutesi only learned about the game of chess because she was looking for something to eat.
The 9-year-old from the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda, stopped by the Sports Outreach Institute site in 2005 because she heard they served food there.
Seven years later, she is on a three-week tour of the United States to help promote the newly released book about her, “The Queen of Katwe.” On Sunday, Mutesi stopped in Matthews to speak to a group of more than 50 people at First Baptist Church of Matthews.
“This is an incredible story of something beautiful coming out of such a broken and hopeless place,” said Dustin Swinehart, a former Charlotte Eagles soccer player who is now director of the Charlotte office of Sports Outreach Institute.
The institute was created to spread Christianity to disadvantaged children through sports. The institute also provides for basic needs, such as health care and food.
Although the organization originally focused on soccer, Ugandan Sports Outreach coach Robert Katende decided he also wanted to create a chess option to reach more children.
Katende’s relationship with Mutesi ultimately launched her chess career.
On Sunday, Mutesi recalled how she followed her older brother to the local Sports Outreach Institute one day because she heard he was fed when he went there.
Although her brother originally told her to go back to the house, Mutesi persisted. She began visiting regularly and learned about the chess program at the institute.
“That was the first time in my life I’d ever heard of chess,” Mutesi said through a translator. “The pieces were very attractive to me.”
With Katende’s help, Mutesi’s chess skills quickly developed. In 2010, she qualified as the youngest female to attend the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia.
Although she didn’t win, she did capture plenty of national attention. When author Tim Crothers heard her story, he knew it was something extraordinary, he said.
“Everyone who reads this book is drawn to the power of this story,” he said.
Mutesi said that her life has changed dramatically since she discovered her love of chess.
Before, her entire life was focused on where to find her next meal. She and her family slept in the streets.
Now, Mutesi said, she is in school. She dreams of becoming a doctor so she can help children in the slums of Africa.
“I didn’t know there was a better life anywhere else,” Mutesi said. “I thought everyone was living the way I was living in the slums. God has given me hope.”
But she hasn’t forgotten where she comes from. When she wins money in a tournament, she shares it with her family and friends.
Soon, she said her family will be able to leave the slums behind. A three-bedroom home is being built in a better part of Kampala for her family.
“This just shows you that nothing is beyond hope,” Swinehart said. “God can do the same kind of thing in your life, too.”
Arriero: 704-777-7070; Twitter @earriero
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