Phiona Mutesi is a chess champion, from what the author repeatedly calls the "slums." Even if that's what the locals say, I was bothered by it. Mutesi's story could be really interesting and important, but Crothers's rendering provides too much backstory and not enough what is really going on with Mutesi and her family. That may not be for lack of trying, because clearly Crothers talked extensively to a lot of people. Unfortunately he provides too much extraneous information from his extensive interviews.
Along with words like "slum" and "shack," the author employs other language that make the book feel colonialist and patronizing. Not that it wasn't an okay read, but it depends on your tolerance level and mood. I can rarely handle statements like this one from Phiona's older sister Night:
"So when I got that man, it wasn't the right thing to do because really I was not of age. I was fifteen years old. But I had no option and he was the one now giving me some money to support my family. So that's how God rescued us from the street."
GOD rescued them?!? Crothers just wrote down and shared what Night said, and I guess lets the reader draw their own conlusions about what saved the family, God or a teenager's sacrifice of self.
I do think the focus on sports outreach is interesting--and the question of chess as a sport, even if it's not divisible from religion. Kids are drawn in with sports and rewarded with food, and it's all infused with religion.
Colonialist, you ask?
Among the most popular sports in the world, chess infiltrated almost everywhere else on earth before it discovered sub-Saharan Africa. It needed 1,500 years to find Uganda.
I'm typically a fan of anthropomorphism, though and think the idea of chess infiltrating and discovering works. It started in India in the 6th century, btw, and went through Persia and Russia before stabilizing in 15th century Western Europe and "often transported to new regions by invading armies," per Crothers (no citations).
Later he has the gall to quote another kid saying "there are so few girls playing chess in Uganda that Mutesi had a chance to rise quickly in the game in our nation." Ugh. It's surely likely that there are fewer women chess players in Uganda, but the kid's observation completely discounts how hard it is for girls to even get to sit at the board. Crothers demonstrates that even women of privilege aren't supported in their chess playing in Uganda and few can stay with the game beyond their mid-twenties.
When Mutesi bests a male chess partner, Crothers writes "While she is already implausibly talented at a game she has no business being good at" I get where he's coming from, but am appalled by "implausibly" and "no business" nonetheless.
In another victory Crothers describes, he says that she "stole the game" when she recognizes her opponent's blunder and capitalizes on it. Stole? Really? In the next paragraph Crothers writes that Mutesi's coach Katende "knew that Phiona never thinks that way, never thinks ahead." Is it really plausible that a chess champion never thinks ahead?!?
Toward the end Crothers reveals that "Phiona" was a bureaucratic spelling of Mutesi's name. She spelled it phonetically, Fiona, but a chess team mentor who knew a Phiona submitted her passport application with the "Ph" spelling, and that was that.
Like I said earlier, the book isn't the worst, but it definitely requires a critical read, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wouldn't question how Mutesi's story is shared.