Checkmate: The final move for a chess pearl Mira Nair discovered

Friday February 21 2020
By Austin Bukenya

Fifteen years and in Form Three, is, really, not an acceptable age for anyone to die. Yet that is just what Nikita Pearl Waligwa of Gayaza High School, the cradle and crest of Ugandan women’s education, has gone and done. Died. “Pearl” is the endearing name by which I believe she went. The “Pearl of Africa” is also Uganda’s pet name.

Pearl Waligwa rose to international prominence in 2016, following her appearance as Gloria, one of the slum girl chess prodigies in Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe. This was Disneyland’s dramatisation of the real-life story of Phiona Mutesi, a mabanda/mtaa, single-parent girl, who stumbles into the complex game of chess as a means of survival. Playing for the simple reason that she can get a daily mug of maize porridge at the shanty church where chess is taught, Phiona becomes a star player who dazzles and puzzles the masters across the chessboards and tables of the world.

I am not quite a chess enthusiast or a movie buff. But Queen of Katwe just had all the ingredients to capture my imagination. To begin with, Katwe, the slum setting of the film, is specially real and significant to me. I spent some of my childhood days there.

In the colonial days, when I lived there, in the neighbourhood of a shop owned by the Maragoli legendary fashion designer Ben Edebe, who made dresses for the colonial governor’s wife, Katwe was called the Black People’s City. It has not changed much today. It is still a chaotic slum, mostly inhabited by people who dare “not expect much from life”, lest they be disappointed.

This, indeed, is what makes the little heroines of the movie, Phiona Mutesi and her friend Gloria (played by the late Pearl), particularly attractive. Such “little women”, rising from the desperate deprivation of informal settlements and making their mark on the world, is a heart-melting story. They are a graceful illustration of Gloria’s assertion in the film that in life, as in chess, “the small ones can become the big ones”.

But Queen of Katwe had other big things going for it. The film’s celebrity stars, for example, were David Oyelowo and our own adorable Lupita Nyong’o, then fresh from her Oscar coronation earlier. Lupita’s participation in Queen of Katwe was initially a labour of love (a sort of homecoming to Uganda, where she had done some of her early theatre apprenticeship). But I think it led to her appearance in the more glamorous Disneyland Black Panther feature, of which the Waganda (“Wakanda”) are inordinately proud.


Mira Nair, however, happens to be the link that connected my mourning of Pearl Waligwa to a train of thought that preceded the news of the little girl’s death, from a recurrent malignant brain tumour.

I spent most of last Sunday afternoon with an academic disciple and friend in a discussion of the “paucity” or even lack of serious writing and reflection on Idi Amin’s expulsion of Ugandan “Asians” nearly 50 years ago. My friend was particularly concerned about the lack of a thorough narrative of the experience of the Asian presence in, departure from and, to a certain extent, return of our compatriots to their homeland, Uganda. He was particularly critical of the “loud silence”, social, historical or creative, of those Ugandans who stayed at home.

You know, by the way, that many of us non-Asians did leave, and could have left, Uganda in 1972. In my own case, for example, I had just returned to Uganda from Stirling, Scotland, where I had studied and taught at the university. When Amin’s Asian expulsion hit international headlines, Prof Thomas Dunn, under whom I had worked at Stirling, sent me a message, through the British High Commission and my Makerere boss, Prof David Cook, that if I felt like leaving, Stirling would be ready to accommodate me.

I was profoundly touched by the gesture, but I responded that I did not feel threatened at the time, and since so many of my other colleagues, Europeans and Asians, had to leave, I would rather stay on at Makerere, and try and hold the fort as best we could with those who did not have to leave. The irony of it was that, five years down the road, I was scampering away for my own safety.

Anyway, back to my friend’s indictment of our failure to produce reflective records on these experiences, I first responded with the observation that maybe there are some documents, both factual and artistic, out there of which we are not aware. Indeed, I mentioned some works, such as the writings of Yasmin Alibhai Brown, my friend Yusuf Dawood’s Return to Paradise, and Peter Nazareth’s The General Is Up, which I discuss extensively in my forthcoming treatise on the “pragmatics of terror” in Ugandan literature.

I could not fail to mention From Citizen to Refugee and the rest of the seminal work of my illustrious colleague Prof Mahmood Mamdani of Makerere. Mamdani has lived the whole gamut of “Asian” experience, from secure growing up at home in Uganda, through exile following Amin’s expulsion to glorious return and re-establishment upon his roots. But mention of Mamdani inevitably leads to Mira Nair.

Indian-born and bred, and a pioneer of female film directing, Mira had already made her name with notable Indian films, such as Salaam Bombay, when she came to Uganda, and met Mamdani. But Amin’s expulsion of the Asians is what had drawn her attention to Uganda, as reflected in her provocative feature film Mississippi Masala, which starred a dazzlingly youthful Denzel Washington.

But the subtext of the intimate partnership between Mira Nair and Mahmood Mamdani, which has kept them firmly grounded on their “native” Uganda soil for several decades now, would be a thrilling story of this aspect of our heritage, when it is told. I am sure Mira Nair will keep telling edifying Ugandan stories and unearthing more gems like Nikita Pearl Waligwa.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]