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Robert Katende is a social entrepreneur and humanitarian from Uganda with a one-of-a-kind strategy for helping fight poverty in the Slums. In 2002, he founded the SOM Chess Academy in Uganda’s capital of Kampala with the intention of fostering leadership and life skills through mastery of the game among the youth of ghetto community, many of whom live below the poverty. In addition to teaching chess, SOM enrolls its students in school either by direct sponsorship or by getting them school placements and gives them the resources they need to continue their education. Many SOM Chess Academy participants have gone on to college and attained successful careers, and several have represented Uganda in international chess competitions. It was on one of these students that the 2016 Disney movie Queen of Katwe was based. Katende has expanded SOM Chess Academy's Philosophy to seven other locations across East Africa, as well in other continents like South America and North America. He still helps coach individual students at chess.

He spoke with Nosapo in January, 2019 about his life and work.


NOSAPO:What motivates you in discouraging times to keep doing the work you do?

ROBERT KATENDE: What motivates me comes from way back, from how I grew up. I grew up in the slums in a very poor setting with only my grandmom. We didn’t even have a mattress. So it was a very challenging time. So I’ve been in the slums, and the only person I had in my life - that was my mom - passed on when I was about seven years. So I’ve lived a life of struggle, a life of endurance, a life of perseverance, to make things happen. I made a commitment to myself because I had no one else. I made a commitment to myself to survive and be someone I would desire to be - the person who can step in the gap - because I knew what it meant to grow up in the slums, because I’ve really lived that life of struggle.

N: Do you see yourself in the people you’re mentoring?

R.K: I entirely do identify with the people I’m serving. Even when I’m really teaching and mentoring them, which has really helped so much, it’s not just that I’m applying what I have experienced - they realize if I was able to be this then maybe they too can make it.

N: What human rights hotspot -or hotspots- does not get enough attention from the rest of the world?

R.K: I would say that the people who are living in underserved communities - this is a very huge hotspot for human trafficking. They are living a life of need and they don’t even have the basics to life. They are so desperate that many times they are vulnerable to manipulation. These are areas that have to be looked into because it is so common. In Uganda, you find that the youth who are in the slums run into organizations who traffic people to the Middle East. When you hear their stories, it’s modern day slavery. They are all coming from these underserved communities

N: How can individual people best promote human rights?

R.K: You don’t need to be a practitioner in development work to promote human rights because they are something that concerns everyone wherever we are. I think the good thing to do is to uphold values and virtues and see everyone as someone who is worthy. We are all brothers and sisters but if I can’t see myself in someone else then I end up violating their rights because I am not able to see them in my image. But if I are able to see that they are not just my brothers, that I am because they are, I think that I will be able to uphold these values. Everyone can advocate for this. Everyone needs to lift up their voices to uphold human rights in any way we can, because they are being violated almost everywhere.

N: Have there been any individuals you’ve worked with that you’ve been particularly inspired by?

R.K: Yes, there are several. Right now, I feel like I’m not just inspired, but that I celebrate them. These are some of the youths that I started working with fifteen years ago and currently they are taking up roles of responsibility. I have eight of them who have graduated through college, but before they were leading hopeless lives. Coming from that hopelessness to hopefulness is really something big. Some are doctors, some are lawyers, some are accountants, so it’s really a great inspiration, and they are my great energizer. Whenever I ponder and look at them I feel like I have a purpose to press on and continue with this work.

I can give an example: right now, Som Chess Academy has an administrator called Richard. Richard is one of the pioneers of the program who has really been through a lot, and right now he is one of the key leaders, coordinating it throughout the whole country. To see that happen is quite amazing. Then also others have come into the country as refugees just trying to see how they can press on to the next day. They have been able to use this little opportunity they have been given to really work hard and they are now great leaders. One of these became a doctor. He was from Sudan, but now he works in Gulu [in Uganda].

N: What particular challenges have you run into in your work?

R.K: Thank you for the question. There are several challenges, but particularly with my work and my approach it was very challenging at the beginning because people could not understand exactly what I was trying to do, bringing a foreign game into a community where it was not expected, where it has never been even played. Chess used to be taken as a game of the elite class and now you are lowering it to bring it down to the slums, to the streets! So it was really a big challenge to let the community embrace the program and also for the kids themselves to really see this game as part of a bigger vision.

Then, number two, the challenge is that when you go to the slums to serve you see a lot of issues going on. Sometimes you find some kids who are abused, and kids of fourteen are raped. You find kids who have become sexually active at the age of six years... So it’s quite traumatizing, and you’re always asking yourself, “what can be done here?” So you try to mitigate the situations. Sometimes I’ve reported some of the situations to the police because you feel like it’s overwhelming. It’s really a big, big challenge, and you’re doing it with few resources, with no support from the local government... You just have to depend on charity, wellwishers, and people who have embraced the vision to help out.

N: Have you noticed any changes in the refugee situation in Uganda since the time you started your chess academies?

R.K: Yes, I’ll give an example. In Gulu, we have refugees who have just come to the country from South Sudan, so I think there’s been an influx for sure because there’s been some kind of chaos in our neighboring countries. You talk of Congo, you talk of South Sudan, all these people have found safe haven in Uganda. The only challenge is that they are put in the camps and have to find their way out of the camps but I think the numbers have increased because of the wars going on in the neighboring countries.

N: What is next for your chess programs?

R.K: Right now, some of the youths that we started with have been very young, about seven, eight, nine, ten years. Right now, they are in their twenties - young adults - who need a skill they can use to remake themselves. I’m now focusing on vocational programs to see that I can empower these youths. I actually started last year with computer vocational skills, because when [my student] Benjamin went to a U.S. college, when he got a scholarship to Northwest University in Seattle, he was using a laptop for the first time because it was mandatory for each of the students to have a laptop... When I saw this I tried to figure out how we can best equip these skills to get the best computer literacy. I’m now working with some friends of mine to see how we can empower the youth in all our programs… they are coming with some used cameras so we can start up a photography program.