Student Story
11 February 2020

Beating the Odds: The Improbable Life of a Chess Prodigy from Zimbabwe

Kindgom Karuwo (master student in Anthropology and Sociology) grew up in Zimbabwe, in a place where opportunities were as scarce as airplanes. But a chance encounter provided him with the means to change the course of his life. Chess became the tool that allowed him to see beyond the Zimbabwean horizon and set him on a course to give back to Africa. 

My life began in the “back of beyond”, as we later called it, in the small village of Plumtree, Zimbabwe. This was a place where cowbells clanged and half-dressed boys ran to and from, or danced in the rain. As a boy, aeroplanes were such a dazzle. Looking up and chasing the aircraft as far and as fast as my peers and I could run, we often wondered, “who is inside those planes?” “Where are they going?” “Can they drop some sweets down to us?” 

From my village, imagining the far-off capital city and the whole of Africa and its beyond was something I could only dream about. It’s as if growing up in Plumtree almost sealed one’s fate to stay. By pure chance, I left. It all started because of a Rubik’s cube and later, a chess board.

One day, a Swedish volunteer researching near Plumtree gave me said Rubik’s cube. A week later, she was stunned to see that I had nearly solved it. The best I can remember is that she was so impressed, she sought permission to send me to a city school. She spoke with my headmaster and the next thing I knew, my primary education had been paid for in the affluent city of Bulawayo. This was the reinvention of Kingdom. 

In high school, I began to compete in chess, where I won several tournaments. My classmates started to give me titles such as “sir”, “scholar”, “Nash” or “Srinivasa”. Being likened to these characters placed me on an imaginary international arena. I still don’t know how much these gestured influenced me to study abroad, but in a sense, I saw myself growing beyond the confines of Zimbabwe.  

I played chess for more than five years, and the money I won at various national competitions paid for my schooling as well as that of my beloved sister. You see, without parents, I quickly learnt that no one else was there: it was my sister, the world and me. However, this meant that losing a chess tournament had very serious consequences: it almost meant no school and no extra money to afford small luxuries, like watching movies with friends.

After high school however, because Zimbabwe is a country that rewards excellent academic performance, I got a job that helped me afford the move to Switzerland, where I eventually earned a Master in African Studies at the University of Basel, and now, another master’s degree at the Graduate Institute.  

As a consequence of my mobility, I have nurtured a particular interest in researching migration and development policy in and about Africa. I believe that migrants like myself have the potential to make the world known to everyone. Small stories like mine – from places like Plumtree – carried through bodies across the globe can restore the dignity of those in villages often regarded as lacking in both talent and mastery of high competencies. For me, chess was the device with which I circumvented the village boy narrative and I am forever indebted to its creator.

As an African student abroad, I want to foster and groom an attitude of tolerance, peace, love, care, honour and dignity to Africa. I owe what I am and could possibly be to my motherland and my hope is to unlock my potential in her service through anthropological and sociological tools to speak and action Africa to the world. 

My story is nature’s anomaly and a great improbability yet still a very beautiful story to tell; it excites me every time as if I am a spectator. If I could choose to be born over again, I would not change my life. It has been, and still is, one heck of a ride!

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