‘From Ugandan slum to Disney heroine’, is a phrase used in one of many articles describing Phiona Mutesi, whose character is brought to life in the Walt Disney movie Queen of Katwe.
Like Mutesi, the phrase seems to fit well with Madina Nalwanga, the actress who plays the role of chess champion in the movie that will premiere in Kampala on October 1. Other screenings have been scheduled for October 3 and 7.
Born 16 years ago, Nalwanga lived with both her parents in Kibuli, Lubuga Zone whenever she returned for holidays from Green Valley Primary School.
The school, a portion of which has since been shut, because of its location in a wetland is part-owned by Undugu Sosolya Dance Academy, a music dance and drama group Madina has been part of for the last five years.
The dance group which has featured in music videos such as Chameleon’s Wale Wale and Grace Nakimera’s Ntandika shelters about 300 artistically talented but socially disadvantaged, vulnerable children and youth.
Nalwanga, like the other youth in the group ordinarily spent most of her holidays at the training centre located at Kabalagala, Kiseminti Zone, one of Kampala’s urban slum areas known for prostitution.
That all changed, however, when Dinaz Stafford visited the group’s training centre in January last year.
“We usually receive many visitors and one day a lady asked to watch our rehearsals. But because we don’t have practice on weekdays she was asked to return on Friday evening. On her return she asked to speak to Nalwanga within 10 minutes of watching our warm up drills,” Sosolya’s director of activities, Devis Ssenoga, explains.
“The lady (Stafford) then told us she had to postpone her flight because she believed she had identified the actress to play Mutesi in an upcoming movie about the chess champion from Katwe. She wanted more time to assess her,” he adds.
According to Collin Lubega, the group’s chief choreographer, Madina’s trial period lasted close to two months.
“They kept taking her for trials before she was confirmed for the role about two months later,” he says.
She did not undergo any acting lessons to play the role.
The narration tallies with the film’s director Mira Nair’s narrative about the search process in an interview carried by the New York Times.
“We started looking in July 2014. We must have seen 700 girls by December. In January 2015, the casting director, Dinaz Stafford joined the production and found Nalwanga in a community dance class. I had sort of rolled my eyes internally when Dinaz told me she had found someone. Then she was so vital, it was just dazzling,” Nair is quoted in the New York Times article ‘Queen of Katwe’ Makes Moves on a Ugandan Chessboard’ published on September 8, 2016.
According to Nair, the logistics of filming were complicated, with extensive scenes in the teeming markets and streets of Katwe, and major indoor scenes shot in South Africa.
“The city of Kampala and the slum of Katwe are themselves characters in the movie,” Nair said in the interview. “We used many of the real locations there, but South Africa has a great infrastructure and had the simple architecture and the red earth that we needed.”
“Madina is patient and tolerant, loves to learn new things all the time and always wants to stand out from her friends. She always wants to ‘steal’ the show in a good way so she puts in extra personal time to perfect her motifs and choreography especially for dance.
Also it’s as if she has an electromagnet around her. She pulls the audience and any onlookers so easily with her smile and performing attitude. Every teacher and person who comes to Sosolya notices her,” Lubega says of Nalwanga.
After close to three months of shooting, Nalwanga who sat for her Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) last year, reverted to her dancing career with Sosolya for their two-month tour to Austria and Germany that climaxed in July.
“The film has definitely affected her studies because she was constantly on the move throughout the year. But she is a bright girl and I believe she would have performed better than the Second Grade she got,” adds Ssenoga while concealing Nalwanga’s PLE results.
Confidentiality has been a major part of Nalwanga’s life since she earned the role in the film, following non-disclosure agreements signed by her family and Mark Mugwanya, who has since assumed the guardian’s role.
Since being cast, Nalwanga was moved to a house in Muyenga, had her movements curtaile and has been assigned a police guard with Mugwanya, the Sosolya group director assigned the caretaker role.
Despite her looming success, Nalwanga seems to have remained level headed throughout the period.
“She is still the same Nalwanga always wearing a smile. She also sometimes buys food at the centre, especially during holidays when the numbers are high,” says Lubega.
Apart from exchanging a slum in Kampala to red carpets in Toronto, Nalwanga has also since been admitted to Heritage International School.