Imagine not knowing your birth date. Imagine that your father succumbed to the AIDS virus when you were only three years-old. Imagine living on less than a $1.00 a day and not being able to go to school because your mother couldn’t afford such a luxury. Imagine living in one of the worst slums in East Africa where an American trailer park would look like a Hilton. Then, imagine that you’re the Junior Chess Champion of Africa – and that you’re a black teenage girl.
Meet Phiona Mutesi, the 17 year-old (she does not know her own birthday, so she might be 16) Ugandan chess prodigy who has taken the world of chess by storm and has subsequently become a beacon of hope to millions across the globe. She has played against World Champion Gary Kasparov and she has received press coverage from ESPN, BBC, The Daily Beast, and CNN. Her story is so mind-blowing that there are rumours circulating that Disney is in the process of creating a film based on her life and her aspiration to one day become Grand Master Champion. She is a sensation in the truest form of the word. She is a role model in a world desperate for females who have earned the right to media attention and fame. She is the kind of person who deserves coverage in the Huffington Post.
The whole purpose of the game of chess is to overcome a challenge which requires the biggest will to survive and this is exactly what Phiona Mutesi did by picking up this ancient sport of wits and applying its tactics to her own impoverished life. How did she become involved with chess? She was hungry, broke, and sleeping on the dangerous and disgusting streets of Katwe, a slum in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She would frequently visit a local chess-house where she would fill her empty stomach with free porridge. She then started taking interest in this mentally intense sport by observing the players’ fascination. She jumped at the challenge by first competing against girls and then against the boys. One can easily assume that she wasn’t afraid of taking chances, pushing boundaries, and truly believing in herself. These are the qualities which make her so loveable and utterly persevering. These are the qualities that have earned her fame.
Her story is one of remarkable adversity, triumph, and bravery. How does this young girl life her life? Well, in the short documentary entitled The Queen of Katwe Mutesi begins her day by saying a prayer to God (Mutesi is a strong believer in God: she plays chess to please Him and believes her skill is a gift from Him) and then she helps her mother with the household chores by hand-washing clothes and laying them out in the sun to dry; there’s no washer/dryer combo. She then collects her books (no iPad or laptop) and walks three kilometers to school in raggedy shoes– no school bus, no car, no shiny new Mary Janes. She laughingly admits that this walk is difficult to do on a daily basis but as she makes her way to the classroom, one cannot avoid noticing how blissfully happy and appreciative she is at the opportunity to receive an education. She practices chess everyday and works with a special coach.
She dreams of being a doctor and a chess Champion – she’s getting closer to her dreams while still living in Uganda. She’s happy that she is successful and able to provide for her family. So, fellow millennials, what’s our problem?
Why hasn’t Mutesi’s face appeared on the cover of a Western magazine? Why hasn’t she received news coverage as vehemently as Justin Beiber’s DIU? This is also probably the first time you’ve even heard about her. Is her story not good enough to deserve our attention as much as we obsess about last night’s Grammy outfits? Perhaps Mutesi reminds us of those hungry faces we have grown to ignore from holiday infomercials; the faces of millions of people that exist in the Third World but seem to be invisible because we are separated by continents and oceans. Perhaps her lack of sexual energy with her black skin and her short hair are not as interesting as Miley Cyrus’ crop-cut/lack of attire or the way Mutesi struggles with the English language isn’t as entertaining as watching Rob Ford attempt to speak Jamaican.
I want to see Mutesi’s face on the cover of magazines when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store. I want to read about her story 10 times in a week from various different news outlets; in fact, I don’t think I can get enough of her. I want a reality TV show documenting her everyday life and the challenges she’s forced to cope with and the ways in which she stands up to adversity; I don’t want to see the redneck lowlifes on Toddlers and Tiaras or Duck Dynasty. I want to see strong millennial role models in the media like sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai who stood up for education in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban who seemed to only get about 48 hours of our attention. I don’t want our generation to be remembered by people we belligerently promote to the sensationalist-starved masses like Beiber and Cyrus. I don’t want to see my Twitter feed littered with commentary on Safiyyah Nawaz and her inability to fact-check or how odd Pharell’s hat was at the Grammy’s last night. I want our millennial generation to be remembered because we promoted young people like Mutesi and Yousafzai, and that we didn’t just obsess about “first world problems.” I want to be proud that our generation does indeed have modern day versions of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who are slowly bringing change and hope to the world, inspiring the masses with their courage, intelligence, and strength. I want the media to give me a real role model, not just some corporate-manufactured puppet that has the world given to him/her on several silver platters.
We bob our heads to Drake’s “started from the bottom”, where he alludes to the success he has received because of his talents and his impoverished upbringing in one of Toronto’s richest suburbs. But the real deal of “starting from the bottom” is the story of young people like Mutesi and Yousafzai who literally came from nothing and are now making the world a better place – one book, one chess piece at a time. These are the people who deserve fame and fortune. These are the people who will not take their earnings for granted by egging their neighbour’s house or drag racing in Miami; they’ll probably start a charity or a fund to help others. These are the people who deserve our attention – the sooner the better for the sake of our generation.