Interview: Wilfried Ntamatungiro on Burundi’s Chess Scene

Wilfried Ntamatungiro is a young chess player from Bujumbura, Burundi who had the misfortune of losing 8 out of 9 games and finishing in last place at the Africa Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships in Cairo last month. Barely out of high school, he has big dreams for his chess career. I had the pleasure of interviewing him during the tournament to find out more about Burundi’s chess scene.

Burundian chess player Wilfried Ntamatungiro at the Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships in Cairo
Burundian chess player Wilfried Ntamatungiro at the Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championships in Cairo

How did you get interested in chess? How did you start playing it?

I was 12. I have a brother who studied in Algeria. When he came back home after finishing his studies, on his computer there was chess. Me with another of my brothers we were interested and we opened chess to know what it is. So we started playing but we only knew how to move the pawns. Then our brother who studied in Algeria came and showed us how to move the pieces. Afterwards, our father came home and saw us playing. He asked, “When have you learnt? How did you know to play chess?” We told him and he bought a chess board for us. He, too, he knew how to play. This was in 2005. We played, played, played but we found only random books on how to move.

In 2010, there was an announcement on the radio for selection of the team for the Olympiad in Russia. So we went to participate but we saw that other players were very strong. After we were eliminated we asked them how they were so strong. They told us that they read chess books. Then I started to read chess books and now in Burundi I am among the best.

How many other serious players like you are there in Burundi?

We are not so many. I think we are about 15.

Do all of you stay in Bujumbura or is there any chess activity outside Bujumbura?

No. Yes, in a province called Makamba, in Ngozi and in Gitega.

The people who play in these towns or in Bujumbura, do they come together like a club or they play on their computers at home?

No, they play in clubs. These are non-chess players. In Bujumbura, we have about 7 clubs: in Makamba 1 club, in Gitega 1 club and in Ngozi 1 club.

Do they meet once a week or every day in the evening?

At Bujumbura, we meet every Friday and Saturday. If you have enough time, you can call a friend from another club and then you go to meet with them where the federation is.

How often do you have tournaments in Burundi?

Okay, in the last days, tournaments were only when the Olympiad was coming, for selection only but we spoke to the president (of the federation) and said no, we need more tournaments. Then he made a calendar and now we have 3 tournaments per month—two blitz and one rapid.

Wilfried vs IM Abdelrahman Hesham (Egypt) in Round 5 of the Zone 4.2 Championship
Wilfried vs IM Abdelrahman Hesham (Egypt) in Round 5 of the Zone 4.2 Championship

Does your federation have a chess-in-schools program? Is chess taught in any schools in Burundi?

Yes, now they have started to create clubs in schools. Now we have 3 clubs in 3 schools in Bujumbura. The idea is coming now.

What are your personal goals as a chess player? What are you working towards?

My dream is to become a Grand Master. That’s my goal in chess. To become a GM is very difficult. You have to work very hard, very hard. I’m planning to work very hard to reach that level.

Outside of studies and chess, what are your other interests?

Sometimes I play volleyball because physical sports are also needed. I don’t think I have so much time because I study in the morning and in the afternoon and I also have to find 3 hours for chess every day. I have time only on Saturday and Sunday. Those are the only free days.

Wilfried having fun at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo
Wilfried having fun at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo

(Photo credits: Paras Gudka and courtesy)