The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This young Kenyan chess champion wants to take her moves abroad. The bureaucracy is keeping her in check.

Sarah Momanyi plays a friendly game of chess at KCB Sports Club in Nairobi. The 13-year-old has become one of the most promising chess players in Kenya, attracting invitations from global championships as far as China. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

MUKURU KWA NJENGA, Kenya — With a nonchalance only teenagers have, the 13-year-old shook out the contents of a tote bag onto the table in the one-room shack she shares with her grandmother. Certificates and medals tumbled out.

Sarah Momanyi has won national chess championships for her age bracket two years running. 

The slum where she lives, Mukuru kwa Njenga, is one of the grittiest in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It makes headlines for cholera outbreaks, gang battles, prostitution rings and the city government’s constant threats to raze it. It is built on a wasteland between two industrial zones. Every alleyway is lined by two open gutters.

Sarah’s achievements come despite both her parents’ absence in her life. Her grandmother, who raised her, said her own daughter is an alcoholic with severe tuberculosis and that she tried to sell Sarah as an infant to buy her next fix. 

“Mukuru is tough. But Sarah has quite the brain. Nobody can beat her,” said Josphat Owila, her coach, who works for a Christian charity. 

Sarah has skills that could support her aging grandmother, inspire her community and — perhaps most immediately on her mind — be her ticket to seeing the world beyond Mukuru, and beyond Kenya.

Invitations have rolled in for continental and even global championships in places such as China. This year’s African Youth Chess Championship in Namibia is just a few months away.

But she has had to turn down every invitation, and not for lack of support from the charity that sends her to school. She’s stuck because she’s facing an opponent tougher than anyone who has sat across the chessboard from her: Kenya’s stifling bureaucracy.

Like about 35 percent of Kenyans, Sarah doesn’t have a proper birth certificate. It means she can’t access almost any public services, let alone procure a passport.

Janet Mucheru, the director of the Kenyan government’s Civil Registration Services department, said it is impossible to know exactly how many Kenyans are undocumented by their own government, but that they number in the millions. 

“What we have is guesswork,” Mucheru said. “Our biggest problem is lack of awareness among parents. They don’t know that a birth certificate is essential to access government services.”

Mukuru kwa Njenga’s maze of tin shacks is home to more than 100,000 people, a small proportion of whom are — just like you’d find anywhere else — prodigies of some sort. 

Once Sarah began winning, her grandmother, Christine Kibagendi, and coach Owila, realized the lack of a birth certificate was going to be a major obstacle.

“I am trying my best to figure out how to get her papers in order so that she can go different places,” said Kibagendi, who dotes on Sarah. She occasionally sells curios to make ends meet, and she fashioned Sarah’s first chessboard out of discarded soapstone from nearby stalls.

“I have even pretended to be her mother, but they figured me out. They said, ‘You are too old to be her mother,’” she said.

To get a birth certificate, Sarah and her grandmother would have to prove that she is her mother’s child. One way would be to produce the slip one gets from the hospital after birth. But like a vast number of Kenyans, particularly in slums and rural areas, Sarah was born at home. 

Another option would be for Sarah’s grandmother to legally adopt her, but a byzantine adoption process puts off many Kenyans. For Kibagendi, who lives day-to-day on her earnings, the time and money it would cost are prohibitive.

So, she took an easier route: She paid a broker around $15 to get a birth certificate made for Sarah.

“Ah, the brokers,” said Valarie Ang’awa, a lawyer at Kituo Cha Sheria, an organization that provides free legal advice to Kenya’s poor. “Our most desperate people — they look for the cheapest option, but it only leads to more frustration. That girl will face doubts her whole life. There will always be questions about how she got this document.” 

Sarah isn’t easily discouraged. On a small, wood-framed mirror that hangs by the door of her home, she wrote the words “Never give up.”

When other kids broke the chessboard her grandmother made, she wasn’t distraught — she’d already mastered the game. Hundreds of opening sequences and end games were already stored in her mind.

“People would say to me, ‘Girls can’t play chess,’ ” she said, walking through a market on a recent day, flashing a smile. “I beat all the boys, too.”

Her ambition does not stop at chess. Ideally, she said, she’d become a surgeon one day. “The skills are the same: concentration, and being able to see many moves ahead.”

But even prodigies run into realities. Owila is worried that time is running out for her to stay in school. The church-based charity he works for, Lynchburg, Va.-based Sports Outreach, will be able to sponsor Sarah’s school fees for only a couple more years at most. 

“When the fees are just 2,000 shillings a month, we can manage,” he said. That’s about $20. “But what happens when she has to go to secondary school, which is far more costly?”

Owila and his colleagues are trying to use the birth certificate Sarah’s grandmother bought to apply for a passport, but they haven’t made progress. Even if the document was accepted, the online application portal has been down for weeks.

Owila’s reliability can even pose a problem. On a recent Saturday, he neglected to pick up Sarah at a designated meeting spot, and she sat at a busy intersection for hours, without a phone to call him. The league she was supposed to compete in wouldn’t let her play because she showed up late.

She’d be back the next week, though, cheered on by her grandmother.

“The hope that Sarah brings home — that’s what we live on,” Kibagendi said. “Letting her play chess is taking a big chance, but we live on chances.”

Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.

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