Most people outside Africa were introduced to Katwe, Uganda’s biggest slum, by way of a book, “Queen of Katwe,” and a newly released Disney movie by the same name about a local chess prodigy.
Katwe is the scene of a chess revolution. Since 2013, when Disney said it was working on a film about chess inspired by Katwe, the game’s popularity has exploded. “Queen of Katwe” is the true story of Phiona Mutesi, an uneducated slum girl who succeeded against the odds. She went to a Katwe Academy chess session in 2005 for the free porridge, and stayed for the chess. By age 17, she was representing Uganda at international competitions.
Katwe has been known as a hive of ingenuity since independence from Britain. Artisans, craftsmen and technicians there are renowned for repairing imported electronic devices, cars, TVs, fridges and all kinds of appliances. They’re also known for their ability to improvise and manufacture imitations of original items.
Released in September in Hollywood, “Queen of Katwe” is a critically acclaimed film about succeeding against the odds, starring international superstars Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother and David Oyelowo as her chess coach, Robert.
Uganda has spent money to market the country as a tourism destination, but nothing compared to what “Queen of Katwe” has done, says Joshua Ssentongo Ssali, a Ugandan film tourism consultant. The last Uganda-inspired movie, “Last King of Scotland,” (2006) came out before social media was as big as it is today. “(Queen of Katwe) is an ultimate marketing tool because of the visibility it creates and its prolonged shelf life that cannot be easily gotten by one-off adverts,” Ssentongo says.
Source: The Observer
The popularity of chess exploded in Katwe and all of Ugandy. The Ugandan Chess Federation, with just 12 registered chess clubs a few years ago, had a record 28 clubs registered in 2015. Informal clubs are springing up in schools across the country and the turnout at national junior championships rose from around 150 in 2012 to more than 700 in 2015. Historically, chess in Uganda was played mostly by a small male elite in the capital, Kampala. Phiona’s story inspired women, girls and players from all walks of life.
Source: Al Jazeera
Located less than 2 miles from Kampala’s central business district, Katwe has been known since independence from Britain in 1962 as a center for artisans, craftsmen and technicians who repair imported electronics, car, and appliances such as TVs and fridges. Some would improvise and “manufacture” imitations of the originals and the range of locally manufactured goods has increased. Katwe artisans now collaborate with Makerere University’s Faculty of Technology.
Katwe has traditionally attracted entrepreneurs and independent businesspeople, viewed as “risky” by Uganda’s conservative banking industry. These have included chefs, food vendors, wholesalers of local foodstuffs, herbalists, small transportation companies, second-hand electronics vendors, and sellers of recycled scrap. Around 2007, banks and other industries started moving in. Quality Chemical Industries, a Ugandan pharmaceutical manufacturer has its head office in Katwe. So does Equity Bank. Orient Bank, Tropical Bank, Stanbic Bank, Bank of Africa and Airtel Telecom have also moved in.
Katwe is plagued with prostitution, petty theft, armed robbery and murder. Politicians and community leaders blame unemployment and rampant use of recreational drugs for the high crime rate. The residential area of Katwe has been a slum since people started building homes along the railway tracks leading from Kampala to Kasese in the first half of the 20th century.
Katwe Small Scale Industry group, which represents local artisans, says unfair competition from cheap Chinese and Indian imports is hurting their business. Metal fabricators say they’ll go out of business if the government doesn’t protect their interests. They claim that most property developers in Kampala have abandoned their steel products for less durable, cheap aluminum imports. Most of the products the government imports, especially agricultural processing machines, can be produced in Katwe.
Source: Red Pepper
Here’s how Tim Crothers, an American author and former Sports Illustrated writer described Katwe in his book, “Queen of Katwe,” (Scribner 2012):
“Katwe is one of the worst places on earth. The slum is often so severely flooded that many residents sleep in hammocks suspended just beneath their roofs to avoid drowning. Raw sewage runs through trenches beside the alleyways of the slum and floods carry it inside people’s shacks. The human waste from neighboring downtown Kampala is also dumped directly into Katwe. There is no sanitation service. Flies are everywhere. The stench is appalling.”
Anyone who saw the Disney movie “Queen of Katwe” will find these scenes familiar, as described by Crothers:
“Nothing grows there. Stray dogs and rats and long-horned cattle all compete with humans to survive in a confined space that becomes more overcrowded every day. Homes exist wherever someone can find space to construct a makeshift shack, at least until a developer decides that land might have some value and the area is set afire. People are evicted from their dwellings by way of a controlled burn.
“In Katwe, they say that “running water” is the water you have to run through the slum to get, either from a dirty community well or a fetid puddle. Electricity is far too expensive for most Katwe residents where it is accessible at all. Landlords show up periodically with a sack full of padlocks and anyone who can’t pay the rent is locked out of their home.”
Source: Excerpt from “Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers (Scribner 2012) pages 17-19/The Lulu Tree
“Katwe has no street signs. No addresses. It is a maze of rutted alleys and dilapidated shacks. It is a place where time is measured by where your shadow hits the ground. There are no clocks. No calendars. Because it lies just a few degrees from the equator, Katwe has no seasons…Every day is just like the next. Survival in Katwe depends on courage and determination as well as guile and luck…
If you live in Katwe, the rest of the Ugandan population would prefer that you stay there. In the more stable neighborhoods that surround Katwe, homes and petrol stations and supermarkets are patrolled by uniformed security guards with AK-47s. The skyscrapers of downtown Kampala are in view from any dwelling in Katwe, just steps away. Children of the slum venture to the city center daily to beg or pickpocket and then commute back to Katwe to sleep at night.”
Source: Excerpt from “Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers (Scribner 2012), pages 17-19/The Lulu Tree
“In Katwe, life is so transient that it is often hard to identify which children belong to which adults. It is a population of single mothers and their kids tossed randomly from one shack to another. Everybody is on the move, but nobody ever leaves…The women of Katwe are valued by men for little more than sex and childcare. Many women in the slum are sex workers who eventually become pregnant, but can’t afford to stop working in the trade. They must leave their children locked in the shack at night and it is not uncommon for them to return home in the early morning to find their kids have drowned in a flood…
“Bishop Mugerwa estimates that nearly half of all teenage women in Katwe are mothers. Due largely to the lack of access to birth control in Katwe and its neighboring slums, Uganda is now the youngest country in the world with an average age of 14 years…Katwe’s youth endure an overwhelming stigma, a sense of defeat, and a resignation that they’ll never do any better than anybody else in the slum. Achievement is secondary to survival.
“What we have is children raising children,” Mugerwa says. “It is known as a poverty chain. The single mother cannot sustain the home. Her children go to the street, and have more kids, and they don’t have the capacity to care for those kids. It is a cycle of misery that is almost impossible to break.”
Source: Excerpt from “Queen of Katwe,” pages 17-19/The Lulu Tree
Salt mining at Lake Katwe dates back to the 16th century. Lake Katwe is too salty to support aquatic life, but it has sustained thousands of Katwe inhabitants. On a typical day, more than 4,000 Katwe residents spend more than eight hours harvesting salt from water containing ammonia, hydrogen and other gases. They work without protective gear. Women miners are particularly vulnerable. Inflammation of the uterus is a common problem along with dehydration and chemical burns. The occupation is called winning salt. It involves recovering salt after it crystallizes in salt pans along the shores of Lake Katwe. Winning is done mostly by women but few own the process or the profits. Most salt pans are family businesses owned by men through inheritance. The salt is sold in Rwanda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Uganda’s tourism authorities don’t like to draw attention to their slums, instead using PR firms to promote wildlife, culture and adventure in glossy brochures, according to eTurbo News. “Queen of Katwe” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sep. 10; in Hollywood on Sept. 20, and at a separate press screening at Century Cinemax in Acacia Mall, in the upscale Kampala suburb of Kololo. A Ugandan film tourism promoter who attended the Hollywood event criticized the poor Ugandan representation in Hollywood. “Paparazzi and journalists from over 100 media houses (went crazy for the film), but not a single Ugandan official representative or even media house was at such a huge Uganda showcase,” he said. “Disney has posted gigantic billboards of the film in over 12 states.” This was a missed opportunity to say to Hollywood that “Uganda is not just Mount Trashmore” but much, much more.
You can tour the lake for insight into the salt mining process, see community members working, cross the mud walkways and see the bird sanctuary, home to thousands of flamingos from October to May. The trail to the lake has been used for 500 years by people, hippos and lions.
Source: Pearls of Uganda