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Robert Katende on changing lives through chess

`I’m happy knowing there are people who celebrate me for making their lives better’

INTERVIEW | AGNES E NANTABA | Robert Katende is best known for taking the game of chess to the slums and attracting street kids to it. He has since expanded the game to disabled youngsters at the Kampala School of the Handicapped. He uses chess as a tool to nurture, mentor and disciple young people; especially vulnerable children.

“My programme is not just bringing chess players but leaders who can take other people’s lives to the next level,” says Katende, “Each child is accountable to another child and through that I create a chain of leadership.”

And he has won many local and international awards for creating social impact through chess. The World Chess Federation has awarded Katende for his use of chess as a vehicle to create positive social impact for less privileged children in the slums. He was also appointed the General Secretary for the Social Action Commission of the World Chess Federation.

His best known breakthrough has been as the mentor of Phiona Mutesi; the real life inspiration for the 2016 biographical Hollywood blockbuster movie, `Queen of Katwe’. The Walt Disney Pictures movie depicts the life of Phiona Mutesi and her rise from the slums to become a chess champion. Directed by Mira Nair and written by William Wheeler, it starred top names David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and little-known Madina Nalwanga. Katende and over 2,000 street children worked on the movie. Katende was a consultant, helping in particular with the chess scenes.

In real life, at only nine years, Mutesi accompanied her brother to play chess in the slums where they lived. It was her introduction to chess. Two years later, Mutesi was among the three winners of the first Uganda Junior Girls’ Chess Championships and by age fifteen won the African National Junior Chess Open Championship title. Mutesi represented Uganda at the World Chess Olympiad in Turkey.

Katende is the Director of Sports Outreach in Uganda; an organisation whose headquarters are in Lynchburg Virginia. He works through this organisation to reach out to these young people.

Katende’s journey to get the slum and street dwellers involved in chess dates as far as 2003. He was pursuing volunteer opportunities at Sports Outreach Ambassadors, an NGO. Although he had just graduated from Kyambogo University with a bachelor’s degree in Civil engineering he had failed to get a job. Two years later, Katende managed to field a team in the national chess competition at the elite Kings College Budo. He said they had been nominated to play in international competitions earlier but failed to attend because they did not have money to cover the travel expenses. Eventually children from well-to-do could take up the slots.

But by 2009, Katende’s prodigies had dominated the game of chess previously linked to the elite class. So the Uganda Chess Federation was convinced that the only team to return glorious in the African Chess championships was Katwe slums.

The story of Robert Katende and his persistence to help young people living in slums is inspired by his own life. He was born to teenage mother, Nawaguma, who was only 14 years old in Kiboga town. His father showed him no affection and he grew up with his grandmother and assumed she was his mother. Until his mother showed up one day. He was six years old.

At seven years, Katende joined his mother in the Nakulabye suburb of Kampala to start school. It was tough life as they lived in a very low income area. But more tragedy struck when his mother passed on. At the time of her death, Katende’s mother had saved up to Shs200, 000. This kept him in school for the next two years. Then Katende was tossed from the care of one kind relative to another. Often it was in search of school fees. Somehow he completed primary education at St Elizabeth Primary School with good grades. He was admitted to nearby Lubiri Secondary School. His hard work pleased both relatives and teachers at school. He was nicknamed “engineer” for his academic excellence. And that is how his career choice was determined. He started working to be an engineer. At Lubiri SS, he was also introduced to chess.

He made it to Kyambogo University where he pursued a diploma in civil engineering. He also mastered chess here. And also took up football. He was later to play professionally for Miracle Football Club, Top TV FC and Sports Outreach Ambassadors under Coach Aloysius Kyazze. He realised he could help young people with their soccer and chess and started volunteering with Sports Outreach. He mainly was inspired to help young people living in slums. He wanted them to have a better life. Today, Katende is married to Sarah Ntongo with whom they have three children.

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