A Ugandan student who played a memorable role in a 2016 Disney film about a local chess prodigy, Queen of Katwe, has died at the age of 15. Nikita Pearl Waligwa died on Saturday at a hospital near the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The cause was a brain tumour, according to the girls’ secondary school she had attended since 2018.
She was “a darling to many,” Gayaza High School said on Twitter. Local media reported that Waligwa had been in and out of hospital with a recurring brain tumour and had previously received treatment, including surgery, in India.
Tributes were coming in for her on social media as Ugandans expressed sadness and recalled her role in the 2016 movie directed by Mira Nair and filmed in Kampala.
Queen of Katwe follows the rise of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi as a chess player amid grinding poverty in the Kampala slum of Katwe, with her single mother barely able to support her and her two siblings. Mutesi falls under the spell of an unassuming chess teacher who encourages the teenager to learn the game despite the skepticism of her mother, who warns her not to dream big because “you will be disappointed.”
The film was received favourably in Uganda, where young people with no acting experience shared the limelight with stars like Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o. One of those Ugandans was Waligwa, who played Gloria, a chess player younger than Phiona who memorably said in the movie that in the game of chess “the small one can become the big one.”