By Tim Crothers
Scribner. 232 pp. $26
“The Queen of Katwe” is as much about the Ugandan slum of Katwe, in the city of Kampala, as it is about a young Ugandan chess player, Phiona Mutesi. Sportswriter Tim Crothers paints a dire picture of Katwe and the kids who grow up there. Despite the national chess title she wins, Mutesi, too, is mired in limitations.
“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog,” Crothers writes. “To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog in Katwe.”
Crothers provides in-depth portraits of the people and institutions around Mutesi, including her mother, who cannot read or write and was pregnant by the time she was 16; her dad, who died of AIDS; her chess mentor, who grew up in Katwe but was able to graduate from college; and the Sports Outreach Institute, which enabled her to start playing chess and eventually participate in international tournaments.
But what stays with the reader is the image of hopelessness in Katwe, “a maze of rutted alleys and dilapidated shacks” where “the slum is often so severely flooded that many residents sleep in hammocks suspended just beneath their roofs to avoid drowning. Raw sewage runs through trenches beside the alleyways. . . . Flies are everywhere. The stench is appalling.”
If only the book ended with the skilled Mutesi getting out of Katwe. But she is still there, still in school and still playing chess, her life’s path very uncertain. Crothers leaves readers with only a glimmer of metaphoric hope. “Phiona stalks her young [chess] opponents as ruthlessly yet compassionately as she can, while drawing a flower in the dirt on the floor with her toe, plotting her next move.”