HomeArticlesWhat reduces child marriage and poverty? Ask Zimbabwe’s young chess queens

What reduces child marriage and poverty? Ask Zimbabwe’s young chess queens

  • Ten-year-old Grace Zvarebwa is one of the star players in the Queens of Chivhu chess club. The child of rural subsistence farmers, she currently has 15 medals under her belt.
  • Godknows Dembure, the teacher who founded the Queens of Chivhu club, says playing chess helps empower the girls, boost their confidence and enhance their critical thinking skills.
  • The club got their name from the film Queen of Katwe, which tells the story of a 10-year-old chess prodigy from a poor family of Uganda.

While the international chess community reels from a major cheating row, in a bare classroom in a small rural town in Zimbabwe, 10-year-old Grace Zvarebwa sits on an upturned bucket, crouched over a board made of card, pondering her next move. After a few minutes, she checkmates her opponent’s king to win the match.

Grace is training for a pan-African schools chess tournament in Liberia, where she hopes to represent her club, the Queens of Chivhu. She is one of its star players. Since taking up the sport three years ago, she has won 15 medals — 10 gold, three silver and two bronze — in tournaments around the country.

“I saw other girls playing chess and decided to take up the challenge,” says Grace, who lives in Chivhu, about 90 miles south of the capital Harare, with her three siblings and parents. The family are subsistence farmers.

“Some of the money that I won from the tournaments has helped my parents to buy stationery, clothes and pay my school fees.”

From pawns to queens: Empowering young girls through chess

The Queens of Chivhu club was created by Godknows Dembure, a teacher who wanted to “uplift young girls in this community”, and improve their critical thinking and maths skills.

The name is inspired by the Hollywood film Queen of Katwe, which tells the story of a 10-year-old chess prodigy from a poor family in Uganda.

Godknows Dembure, the coach of the Queens of Chivhu. (Tafadzwa Ufumeli, The Guardian)

Dembure was introduced to the game when he was training to be a teacher. “I realised that young girls’ problems — such as unwanted pregnancies and child marriages — force them to drop out of school early,” he says. “I seek to change that through chess, which empowers these girls, boosts their confidence to speak up, and keeps them safe from male predators in the villages.

“I started playing chess for fun until I started participating in tournaments and won some games. After seeing that people were going far with chess, I introduced it to the girls.”

A gambit to get the girls to Liberia: Competing is expensive

It was a bold move. In Zimbabwe, chess is considered an elite sport, played in top schools, not in rural places like Chivhu. But the Queens of Chivhu have triumphed in the game, competing in and winning local, national and international competitions.

Thanks to crowdfunding efforts, the Queens of Chivhu were able to compete in the 2019 African Schools Individual Chess Championship in Namibia. Grace just missed out on a medal, finishing fourth in her age group. She hopes to go for gold at this year’s tournament in Liberia in December — if funds allow.

Dembure says finding the money to attend competitions is a challenge. Parents in the area already struggle to pay for their children’s education. The club used Gofundme for its trip to Namibia, but the year before, despite winning the Zimbabwe national championships, they couldn’t afford to go to the African tournament in Egypt. Likewise, last year, the team had players qualify for the African Youth Chess Championship in Ghana, but couldn’t afford to attend. “I just hope we will make it to Liberia,” he says.

Thabo Elisha, from the Zimbabwe Chess Federation, says money is an issue, but adds: “Though lack of funding in chess — not only in Zimbabwe but the whole of Africa — is a setback, it is possible for some to earn a living from it.” Zimbabweans Rodwell Makoto and Robert Gwaze, two International Masters, are doing just that.

Grace hopes she can follow in their footsteps. “I want to be a nurse and a professional chess player,” she says. “I wish to compete in international competitions in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States.”

This article was originally published by The Guardian’s global development project part of Guardian News & Media Ltd.

Farai Shawn Matiashe is an award-winning journalist based in Mutare, Zimbabwe who writes for various international media outlets including Aljazeera and The Guardian. Matiashe is passionate about rural reporting where he covers climate change, health, renewable energy, business, women and gender, science-technology and agriculture stories.