This 13-Year-Old Chess Champ Is Working Her Way Up From The Slums But Her Path Is Blocked By A Huge Wall

By  |  August 13, 2019

Sarah Momanyi, a 13-year-old elementary school student, has won two national chess championships in Kenya having got the better of all-comers in her age bracket for two years in a row.

The young pupil undoubtedly has the potential to go on and take the world but her part to the top is impeded by a challenge that is unlike any person that has sat from across her in a game of chess. She’s come up against the Kenyan bureaucracy and this could be her toughest challenge yet.

Sarah lives with her grandmother in Mukuru kwa Njenga; one of the grittiest slums in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, which is notorious for unsavoury headlines such as gang battles, prostitution rings, cholera outbreaks and threats of demolition from the government.

Sarah’s grandmother took her in several years back after her alcoholic mother tried to sell her as an infant. Her father had been M.I.A since day one.

Mukuru is a tough place to be raised in. It is built on a wasteland between two industrial zones. Every alleyway is lined by two open gutters. Thugs and street urchins pretty much have the run of the place. But Sarah has managed to keep her head, displaying early genius when most people her age were far too willing to sign up for the street life.

Mukuru kwa Njenga, a slum of more than 100,000 people, is one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

Sarah’s grandmother fashioned her first chessboard out of the discarded soapstone she had collected from nearby stalls after the little girl showed quite an aptitude for chess. And she’s only gotten better since then. She’s won every competition she’s featured in and she has medals and certificates to show for it.

“Mukuru is tough. But Sarah has quite the brain. Nobody can beat her,” says Sarah’s coach, Josphat Owila, who works for a Christian charity.

The mercurial talents of the little girl could help support her aging grandmother, inspire her community and — perhaps most immediately on her mind — be her ticket to seeing the world beyond Mukuru, and beyond Kenya. But her chances of doing all that could be hampered by an unfortunate detail — she’s not documented and she’s from the underbelly of the system.

Lately, Sarah Momanyi has been offered invitations to various continental and global championships — including the African Youth Chess Championship that is coming up in Namibia in a few month’s time — but she’s had to take a hard pass.

And it’s not because she can’t get support from the charity that already pays for her schooling. It’s because she’s part of the 35 percent of Kenyans who do not have a proper birth certificate. It means she can’t access almost any public services, let alone procure a passport.

Sarah Momanyi plays a friendly game of chess at KCB Sports Club in Nairobi. The 13-year-old has become one of the most promising chess players in Kenya, attracting invitations from global championships as far as China. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

As is common for the many people living in such squalid neighbourhoods, Sarah was born at home. Thus, there is no documentation as there are no hospital records. 

Once Sarah’s stock started to rise as a local chess hero, her grandmother and her chess coach knew that the lack of documentation of her birth was going to become a problem eventually. So, they set out to fix it. 

At first, the grandmother would pretend to be the mother of the little girl but she was soon found out, especially as she is actually way too old to be the mother of the little girl. And now the entire process of documenting the little girl’s birth is proving a tough nut to crack.

To get a birth certificate, Sarah and her grandmother would have to prove that she is her mother’s child. One way would be to produce the slip one gets from the hospital after birth. But that can’t happen as Sarah was, in fact, born at home.

Another option would be for Sarah’s grandmother to legally adopt her, but the complicated and protracted nature of the adoption process and the fact that the online registration platform has been down for days puts off many Kenyans.

So, the old woman took the easy way out by paying around USD 15.00 to a broker to get a birth certificate made for Sarah. But that too could raise concerns as the little girl could face doubts throughout her life over how she came in possession of that document. It’s a sticky situation.

Sarah Momanyi sits at her shared desk in her class at school. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

But Sarah isn’t easily discouraged. When other kids broke the chessboard her grandmother made out of spite, she didn’t fall apart — she’d already mastered the game. She had already stored up hundreds of opening sequences and end games in her mind.

“People would say to me, ‘Girls can’t play chess,’ ” she said. “I beat all the boys, too.”

Sarah obviously has promise but even the most promising prodigies can be hampered by harsh realities. And one of such realities is that Sarah may not be able to remain in school much longer because the charity that has been sponsoring her can only continue to do so for only a few more years. By the time she gets to Secondary School, the bill may just be too much for the charity to handle.

A good run in a continental or global chess championship could easily earn her a full scholarship and help her achieve her dream of becoming a surgeon but without proper documentation, she wouldn’t be able to get that far.

Sarah’s coach and his colleagues are trying to use the birth certificate Sarah’s grandmother bought to apply for a passport, but they haven’t had much luck. Even if the document was accepted, the online application portal hasn’t worked for weeks.

Once again, the little girl is in a difficult place, but just like the many times she has come up against the toughest of oppositions, there is a good chance that she will triumph over this one too.

Featured Image Courtesy: The Washington Post

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