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All rise, Queens, from Katwe to Lagos, and dare to dream

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queen-of-katwe“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” These words belong to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 24th and current President of Liberia and also appear in This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President preceded by “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.”

The same words also appear in the recently released trailer for Disney’s Queen of Katwe about Phiona Mutesi.

Hands up everyone who had not heard the name of Mutesi ever before, I must admit I was one of those who hadn’t a clue. And shame, for what a wonderful life story we’d have been missing out on if it were not for Disney.

A few things we should know about Mutesi.

She is the Ugandan teen prodigy taking on the world of chess by storm.

She grew up in one of the poorest spots on earth. She couldn’t read and write. Her father died from AIDS when she was just 3. As a child, each day, she scrounged for food for herself and her mother and brother. Not just the hyped up ‘underdog’ story Hollywood so loves, but according to her biographer, Tim Crothers, Mutesi is “the ultimate underdog”.

And like the ‘underdog’ stories we all love, it was a chance encounter with a chess coach that turned Mutesi into a rising international chess star, turning her fortunes around.

“I thought the life I was living, that everyone was living that life,” the teenager told CNN, describing her childhood in Katwe, a slum in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

It wasn’t until in 2005 she decided to get a cup of porridge that Robert Katende, a missionary and refugee of Uganda’s civil war, offered children for attending his chess classes that her talent was discovered. Mutesi walked four miles a day to practice and to receive her bowl of porridge.

Eventually, she became her country’s champion. While not one of the world’s top players, she is the first titled female Ugandan player. What is more, with a grant from a program called Sports Outreach, she is back in school, learning to read and write.

In his biography of Mutesi, Crothers writes, “Every hurdle that the world can place in front of her it has placed in front of her.” What are these hurdles, you ask? To be born a girl in the slum of Katwe, in one of the poorest African countries Uganda, where, about one-fourth live below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. To lose a father while still a toddler, to have to walk for miles to fetch water at 5am every morning, to scrounge for food to feed her family every evening.

When this journey or life gets tough or the joker that is fate starts throwing curve balls, I often remind myself how fortunate I am to be born in the country, century, family I was born into. For I never had to walk miles to fetch water, or be denied the basic right to education; I had a father who put no limitations on me, and a mother who made sure I had the best of everything; and while we were not rich, I know my parents made their middle class income go a long way – long enough to provide me with private high school education, a first degree from one of the top state universities in Turkey, and an overseas postgraduate education.

If I had any limitations, they were self-imposed – and isn’t this the story of many women around us? Maybe it is female fragility which makes us often choose ‘What if?’ over ‘So what?’ and put training wheel on the cycles of our imagination and clip the wings of our highest aspirations and deepest desires?

As women we are often hindered not by the miles we have to walk to fetch water or go to school but the fences we build around the circumference of what we believe we are capable or how we think we will fail if we try to spread those wings and take flight.

Recently I was speaking to a young woman who was scared to losing her contract. Nothing was yet confirmed but fears attacking her faith in herself were plenty: ‘I have not learned enough in my current job’, ‘What if I find another job and encounter the same problems?’ I had to sit with her for an hour in a bid to alleviate her fears. Despite an average – for girls like Mutesi, an idyllic – childhood, this young lady was timid with the weight of her expectations from herself and the fear that she would never achieve them.

All this made me wonder – Why can’t we, as women, be enough and dream more? Why is it that each dream is taken hostage by a bigger fail even before it has the chance to take flight? Why is it that while men roar and soar towards their dreams while we women pussyfoot around our potential?

Of her experience, Mutesi now says, “Chess gave me hope, whereby now I’m having a hope of becoming a doctor and … a grand master.”

From the struggle for a bowl of porridge to dreams of one day becoming a doctor and a grand master. We, that we have more than Mutesi ever had, isn’t it time we drop the deadweight of our fear to be enough and dream bigger?



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