Phiona Mutesi would never have become a Ugandan chess prodigy and grandmaster had her coach Robert Katende taken his own life when he was young. He had a difficult childhood right from the start: His mother had him when she was a teenager, and his father was married to another woman.
“I was denied the joy of growing up with a loving father to help me along and tell me how much he loved and cared about me. In fact, I was given a death sentence by this man’s legal wife when I was only a few days old: She vowed to kill me if I ever set foot in their home,” Katende writes in his book A Knight without a Castle: A Story of Resilience and Hope.
“I never had the chance to live a normal life. I was doomed to fail, to suffer, to struggle, and to die. But I didn’t die. Somehow, I have lived long enough to tell this story. This is not fiction. This is the true story of my life,” he says.
Katende, who lives in Kampala with his family, dedicates the book to his wife Sarah, and their three daughters Mercy, Hope and Grace.
The 239-page book published last year has two parts. Part One presents the story of his life and the key lessons that can be drawn from it. It is autobiographical and inspirational. The second part is written by his research partner, Nathan Kiwere. It focuses on testimonies of people who have been impacted by Katende’s story.
Katende is the founder and director of the Sports Outreach Ministry (SOM) Chess Academy, the “Home of the Queen of Katwe Project” that has produced national and world-class chess players from the Katwe slum in Kampala.
Ugandan chess players Mutesi and Gloria Nansubuga under the guidance of Katende have attained the Woman Candidate Master rankings in the World Chess Federation.
“My birth was indeed a very unpleasant welcome into life. Having come into the world the way I did, rejection was part of my daily existence right from the outset. It was clear that I was an unwanted child; my teenage mum, Firidah Nawaguma, was not ready to bring me into the world, and the father I never met — whose name I never knew — didn’t intend to sire me,” he writes.
Even when his mother met another man, she did not let him tag along with her to the new home for fear of spoiling her chances of marriage. Instead, she put him under the care of her 60-year-old mother, Aidah Namusisi — who was in her late 90s at the time of the writing of the book.
Namusisi did not own a home and they led a nomadic life. Because he was too young to be left alone, he accompanied his grandmother wherever she went.
However, his mother soon returned as the marriage did not work out. She brought along her four other children.
“I had to learn to love her and my younger stepsiblings, in spite of everything. She was still my mother, and thankfully I was too young to reason things out or to choose to hate her for what she had done. I was simply relived that there was a new ray of light at the end of the tunnel. It was the first major turning point in my life.”
His mother enrolled him in primary school in Kampala. But then the family faced urban poverty. “We settled in Kampala’s Nankulabye’s slums, where we defaulted rent several times and ended up getting evicted. This forced us to relocate back and forth between the Kiwunya and Kiyage slums. My grandma and my mother did petty trade together,” he says.
Katende’s time with his mother did not last long before tragedy struck again. She was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. His grandmother abandoned her business to stay at her daughter’s bedside in hospital.
“My mother, however, knew that she would never make it. She also had nothing to bequeath to me or her other children. The only thing she did for me that would guarantee my future was to beg her cousin Jacent, who had a seemingly stable income, to take care of me,” he says.
Katende equates the death of his mother to the loss of the queen in the game of chess. “I was dealt the final blow. In chess lingua, the demise of mummy only compared with the loss of a queen at the start of the game — the queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard.”
After his mother’s burial, his stepsiblings were taken on by their fathers. This was the point at which he attempted to end his life. “I was alone once again, and my spirit was broken. I grieved, I mourned, and I felt that I had reached the end of my rope. How could life be so unfair? It felt like the whole world was in some kind of conspiracy against me; determined to relieve me of everything that I held so dear. Her death pushed me to the limits, until I decided that suicide was my best option. The only challenge with this option is that it cost money – money that I didn’t have. The cheapest form of suicide at that time was taking rat poison.
“I tried to raise funds to purchase it at a nearby shop, but the shopkeeper could not hand it to me because the money was short by a few shillings.
My self-proclaimed death sentence was aborted because of lack of funds. This enabled me to see the following day, as well as some happy moments after the fact that would make me appreciate having not taken my life,” he adds.
Katende went to live with Jacent in Kampala where he combined school and farm work, looking after chicken, cows, slashing the grass, fetching water, cooking, washing clothes and vehicles. On top of that he had to put up with torment from some of the older children in the house.
However, despite the tough conditions, he excelled in his studies and sports, especially football.
He sat for his Primary Leaving Examination at St Elizabeth Namasuba Primary School and passed well. He joined Lubiri Secondary School where he completed his “O” levels.
But soon after, Jacent retired from her banking job and could not afford to look after her own children in addition to several orphans from her relatives, so she asked Katende to find someone else to support him.
“The good news was that Auntie Jacent pledged to continue meeting my tuition.” Today, he looks after 60-year-old Jacent.
After leaving Jacent's home, he approached his paternal relatives, but they rejected him so he returned to grandmother Namusisi, who lived in the Kasubi slum on the outskirts of Kampala. She was living in a small shack with one of her grandchildren, Nagguja, where she would sometimes go without food if she did not make enough money from her onion business in Kasubi market.
To supplement his grandmother’s meagre earnings Katende started making money from playing football as a mercenary in community teams.
Katende was recruited for the school football team. During a match, he was injured and ended up with multiple fractures in his lower jaw. The doctors said that he should not play football again because of the risk of re-injury.
However, a few months after being discharged from hospital he was back to the pitch.
At Progressive Secondary School in Bweyogerere in Wakiso District, he sat his "A" levels and won a government scholarship to pursue a BSc in Physics and Maths at Makerere University. However, he switched to a diploma in Civil Engineering at Kyambogo University.
Katende also holds a BSc in Information Technology from Kampala University and a Masters degree in International Community Development from Northwest University in the US.
In 2003, he was recruited by SOM as an instructor. He founded the SOM Chess Academy in 2004 with just one chessboard. He has since expanded the chess programmes to other parts of Uganda. The SOM teams and players have won several national competitions and represented Uganda in international tournaments.
In his book, Katende compares the application of strategies and techniques of playing chess with everyday life. He notes that in chess, as in life, you have to think ahead of your opponent.
By using chess as a platform for teaching and mentoring, hundreds of children are empowered through the programme and others are now professionals in various fields such as education, finance, medicine, accounting and information technology.
QUEEN OF KATWE
Katende’s commendable social work was made famous in the Disney film Queen of Katwe, a biographical drama about a 13-year-old girl (Phiona Mutesi) who became a Uganda national and world chess champion under his mentorship, eventually saving herself and her family from poverty in Katwe slum.
The feature film is an adaptation of a 2012 book The Queen of Katwe by American sports journalist Tim Crothers.
Katende's legacy has spread far and wide. Mutesi and fellow Ugandan Benjamin Mukumbya are studying at Northwest University in Kirkland, US, where they helped to start a chess club.
Katende plans to expand the SOM Chess Academy and the Robert Katende Initiative.
He also wants to set up schools for the financially disadvantage children.