On any given day, spread across the city of Kampala, groups of children meet to escape the realities 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.
These groups of children gathering to play chess all started 10 years ago, when Robert Katende, Director of Sports Outreach Ministry in Kampala, noticed that many children watched from the sidelines of the soccer matches he organized. It was hard for him to build relationships with these children so one day he announced he was going to teach them a new game. He introduced chess—having battled with the idea for about three weeks. He said, “I very much wanted to build relationships with the children who were not part of soccer so that I could influence them for the better. I picked the chess set I had right from college and started the chess sessions.” What started from a fledgling group of five children is now a solid group of 300 children participating in the chess program in the Kampala area, with about 40 peer coaches supporting them. Across Uganda and Kenya about 12-15 SOI chess clubs regularly meet and over 1,800 children and youth have been exposed to chess and participate in tournaments.
The growth of the chess program and it success has contributed to the Chess Academy and Mentor Center soon getting a new home at the Kampala Ministry Center. The new Chess Academy and Mentor Center will be the epicenter of our activities to model and teach our successful program, host tournaments, and house the local chess club for children living on the campus and in the nearby communities. The Chess Academy will serve as a resource center where children and youth converge each day to access chess literature, computer chess programs, participate in matches and receive training and mentoring from dedicated leaders. Rodney Suddith, President of SOI, said it will be “like a refuge for them. Some of the kids won’t be great chess players, but they will love being there. It’s going to be a special place.”
Work in the ministry slum sites around the city will continue but as the program has grown the need to have tournaments and train others about the program is increasingly important. Rodney continued “We are still called to serve the poorest of the poor in these environments, but we feel like the Center is where we’ll train others how to employ these programs.” 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 so the new Chess Academy and Mentor Center will be a great place to observe the program in action.
The center will have the capacity to host regional and international tournaments, with space for approximately 300 people. To engage the children and encourage them to keep their skills sharp, the goal is to have one competition per month and two or three large tournaments annually. In addition to be a training center and hosting tournaments, the Chess Academy and Mentor Center will also include a lecture hall, library and computer lab. These spaces will support the school and participants of campus programs as well as community members. There will also be space for one-on-one mentoring, one of the critical aspects of the program. 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 a girl’s chess clinic, the first ever 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.