On any given day, spread across the city of Kampala, groups of children meet to escape the harshness of the slums to practice chess. In Kampala alone, 300 children gather daily across five separate locations, in small rented houses, for Bible study, mentoring, a meal, and of course to practice chess. Chess provides a low-cost, high-producing means of helping transform children and youth in many ways. Individuals learn the art of patience and strategizing. These are both extremely helpful and relevant for the population and communities which we serve. The chess program instills discipline and character qualities that contribute to a better-rounded person. Growing in these skills in a caring environment leads to a greater sense of dignity for all those involved.
What started from a fledgling group of five children is now a solid group of 300 participating in the Kampala area, and 1,400 participating across Uganda and Kenya.
The program works—it has been so successful at engaging at-risk young people that the World Chess Federation (known as FIDE) has identified it as a model program. In addition to FIDE, other schools and local organizations have inquired with SOI about how to start their own chess clubs.
Through the course of the chess program, children receive biblical-based coaching for life and academics. Mentoring also focuses on the family as well as individuals. Robert described a typical day of chess club: “I assign them tasks of introducing the game to the newcomers; as a way of engaging them in leadership and having them become more responsible. During the sessions we talk about all aspects of life where they share their challenges and we could devise the remedies together in form of a discussion.”
There are countless examples of children and youth whose lives have been changed because of their collision with chess. Take Phiona Mutesi, who first discovered chess at our chess club in Katwe and in 2012 earned Woman Candidate Master (WCM) as a result of her performance at the 40th Chess Olympiad, making her one of the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history. In December 2013, she helped to organize the first ever clinic for impoverished girls in Uganda. Expecting about 200 participants, 447 girls attended—where each girl was fed and received a chess beginner packet and board. The girls were excited to hear Phiona share her inspirational life story—they leaned in as she encouraged them to work hard, believe in themselves and never lose hope.