Phiona Mutesi, a famed Uganadan chess player, was first introduced to the public by Tim Crothers’ 2012 book The Queen of Katwe, which was later adapted into a Disney movie starring Madina Nalwanga as Mutesi and Lupita Nyong'o as her mother. In the story, Mutesi’s family lives in desperate poverty and hopelessness, but her world rapidly changes after she discovers chess. The game became her tool out of poverty, and today, Mutesi is a freshman at the Northwest University in Kirkland, where she’s been awarded a scholarship for tuition.
Many of us who saw the movie or read the book cheered for Mutesi because we desperately want to believe that sometimes things really do work out as they should. We wanted to believe that the Queen of Katwe had made it. She’d been discovered. She and her family, we assumed, were saved from poverty thanks to proceeds from the book and movie about her life. Crothers confirmed this last year in The Guardian: “Phiona and her family are finally financially secure based on earnings from the book and movie contracts,” he wrote.
This, however, seems not to be entirely true. In January of this year, Elliott Neff, CEO of Chess4Life, a chess program based in Bellevue with students around the globe, started a GoFundMe campaign called “Send the Queen of Katwe to College!” According to the campaign, Mutesi (along with her friend Benjamin Mukumbya, another chess player who was featured in the movie and is also at Northwest on a scholarship) lacks “the funds needed for room, board, travel, and living expenses.”
Neff has been a friend to Mutesi and Robert Katende, her chess coach in Uganda, for several years, and it was a collaboration between Neff and Northwest University President Joseph Castleberry that brought the young chess players from Uganda. Castleberry, according to a recent Seattle Times article, wants to bring more players from Katende’s Ugandan chess club to turn the university into a “chess powerhouse.”
But why, after the book and movie about her life, is Mutesi in need of crowdfunding to support her basic needs?
“This was also the question I had originally until I found out that they received very little from Disney,” Neff told me. “What I've understood is that the way the Disney contracts are written, there is a little guaranteed but the rest is based on how well the movie does after all expenses. The last I heard was that the movie lost money even though it’s a great story.”
Those of us who assumed celebrity had provided for Mutesi, it seems, were wrong. While Chess4Life enjoys recognition for helping make Mutesi the champion she is today—and Northwest University looks toward future championships with her on the team—Mutesi, whose life story has been bought, sold, and consumed, is once again reliant on the kindness of strangers.