By Dr. Dorothy Echodu, CEO of Pilgrim Africa
The release of the critically-acclaimed Disney movie Queen of Katwe illuminates the beauty, strength, and courage of Uganda’s people.
The movie, adapted from a best-selling book, tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a young woman from Katwe (one of Uganda’s poorest slums) who becomes an international chess champion.
Phiona’s story captures the soaring heart of Uganda, a country that has known disease, poverty, and war, yet overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles through sheer spirit, depth of heart, and unquantifiable courage.
The beauty of Uganda’s people will now be shared with the broader movie-going public. The nation’s hopes, personified through the incredible achievements of this young woman overcoming tremendous obstacles in her pursuit of greatness, are sure to inspire.
For us at Pilgrim Africa, a Seattle-based organization quietly building an innovative Ugandan NGO specializing in public health and education, the release of Queen of Katwe is a moment for reflection and celebration.
In 2006, our boarding school Beacon of Hope opened its doors in Soroti, Uganda. The first 260 students were all former abductees of the Lord’s Resistance Army or former LRA soldiers. We provided pastoral and trauma counseling, as well as music, dance, and drama therapies to help children forgive and heal. The last child soldiers graduated out of the school in 2014, but the school has continued to focus on assisting the most vulnerable youth in the community.
Phiona Mutesi did not attend Beacon of Hope, but she is representative of many of our students who aspire to a better life, remaining hopeful and persistent despite myriad temptations to apathy or despair.
Today, Beacon of Hope serves 698 students—of which 384 receive a full scholarship—with an ambitious state-of-the-art STEM-focused curriculum that challenges students to think and dream big. Beacon was built using Pilgrim’s approach to solving development problems: deep respect for local context, and what we call jasiri, or bold love—the insistence that even the poorest Ugandan youth can and must be part of building and strengthening our global community. Beacon graduates have gone on to university and are now health care professionals, government workers, and information technology experts.
Deborah Apio is a 19-year-old who completed her high school studies at Beacon of Hope. As the fifth of nine children in her family, Deborah jumped from school to school as money was available to pay for her school fees. Her father decided to take her to Soroti and enroll her at Beacon of Hope School, where she was provided with a sponsorship that allowed her to stay at Beacon.
“Pilgrim sponsored me for the rest of high school,” she says. “This was a breakthrough for me as I had faced a lot of hardship in my life.”
“I am so happy that Pilgrim exists today because many of my friends and colleagues have benefited through the project. I have always wanted to study medicine and I know I will pursue my dream.”
Deborah recently enrolled at Kenya Methodist University, where she was awarded a full scholarship to study medicine.
This year, at an international robotics and technology high school competition held in Uganda, the Beacon of Hope team built a remote-controlled robot and was awarded a gold medal for this pioneering project. Expanding upon this success, the Beacon of Hope robotics team is slated to enter a highly acclaimed competition in Israel next year.
At Beacon of Hope, we are teachers and parents, caregivers and mentors, doctors and nurses who believe that love, hope, and faith, with God’s help, can usher in a bright future for some of Uganda’s most vulnerable young people.
As audiences gather to watch Queen of Katwe, we at Pilgrim Africa can’t help but wonder, will multiple kings and queens of Uganda emerge from Beacon of Hope Secondary School? Will our students who are among the poorest of the poor be similarly celebrated on the world stage one day for their intellectual exploits and creative capabilities?
The early results are in, and the answer points to a resounding yes.
Dr. Dorothy Echodu is the CEO of Pilgrim Africa. An expert in public health, Dr. Echodu pioneered the NGO’s anti-malaria program in Uganda and leads the Beacon of Hope Secondary School along with her husband Calvin Echodu, the founder of Pilgrim Africa.