For Disabled Student, Chess Offers Hope and Opportunity for Success

In Katwe, one of the poorest areas in Uganda’s capital, Robert Katende challenges chess elitism by teaching children the game. For one disabled student, learning chess has meant new hope for the future and a chance to transcend some of the challenges of being confined to a wheelchair.

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For Disabled Student, Chess Offers Hope and Opportunity for Success

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Sharif Wasswa Mbaziira (left) plays chess with a classmate at the Kampala School of the Physically Handicapped in Uganda. Mbaziira was a student at a local chess academy that has challenged the notion that chess is for the elite.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Sharif Wasswa Mbaziira focuses on the chess board.

He frowns when two of his pieces are taken by his opponent.

He waits for his turn to play.

When his turn comes, he pauses for 10 seconds, then lifts his right hand to pick up a white piece and jumps it over several black ones. A smile appears on his face as he says, “Check.”

“I can’t imagine a day passing without playing chess,” Mbaziira says. “It’s become part of my life.”

Every day at 3 p.m., after his classes, he and fellow enthusiasts gather to play chess in their school, the Kampala School of the Physically Handicapped.

But until two years ago, he had never heard of the game that he now hopes to make his living on.

Mbaziira says being disabled and having to use a wheelchair left him with little hope. He knew he could never excel at sports or become a school champion — until he found chess. Now he is part of the first-ever team of physically disabled students to compete in national and international competitions.

The 16-year-old says chess means everything to him.

“I want to make a living by playing chess,” Mbaziira says. “To provide for my family a good house with a proper toilet that wouldn’t be shared with neighbors.”

As for his chess skills, he says he wants to compete with the best in the world.

“I want to become a grandmaster like Garry Kimovich Kasparov,” he says, referring to the Russian chess grandmaster and former world champion.

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Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Local chess teacher Julius Ssali instructs students at the Kampala School of the Physically Handicapped in Uganda.

Mbaziira is one of more than 1,400 kids who have been through Robert Katende’s SOM Chess Academy, Katende says. The school came to prominence after last year’s Disney film “Queen of Katwe,” which chronicled the rise of Phiona Mutesi, one of Katende’s protégés and an international chess champion.

But Mbaziira is unique among his students, Katende says — just 14 of the 1,400 graduates have been children with disabilities.

Katende has long challenged the idea that chess is for the elite. He introduced the game in Katwe, an area widely considered to be among the poorest in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, in 2004.

Katende says Mbaziira is a powerful example of his theory that chess can empower everyone.

“Mbaziira’s story can be a point of reference to everyone,” Katende says. “Now more people have come to believe that chess is a game for everyone and how it can bring about change in people’s lives.”

And so far, Mbaziira’s off to a strong start, winning the interschool club chess championship and placing third with his team at the national chess championship. In June, he represented Uganda at the first annual FIDE World Junior Chess Championship for the Disabled in Orlando, Florida. Mbaziira was the first Ugandan with a physical disability to represent his country in an international chess tournament. He placed sixth.

“That is an achievement to me. It gives me hope and the will to become a greater sports champion,” he says. “Two years back, I never thought this could happen to me because I did not know about the game.”

Mbaziira says chess has also helped him to develop social skills.

“My self-esteem has improved because I know I can be good at something. People will stop seeing me only as a boy moving in a wheelchair, but now as a chess champion, too,” he says.

SOM Chess Academy runs nine centers in underprivileged parts of Kampala and the northern city of Gulu.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated an interview from Luganda.