The Tale of Africa’s Youngest National Chess Champion

Walking in the then dusty roads of Area 25, a township in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, kids playing along the road were usually a common sight in the early 2000s. Popular games were plastic paper football, marble, “fulaye” and, if they are from wealthy homes, basketball- inside their brick fences. But what was, and still is, more intriguing about this township is its unpredictability. One moment you see a line of high class houses, the other, you will see a line of below average houses. It’s not surprising that such an unpredictable setting would produce a chess player with an unpredictable style such as Joseph Mwale.

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In summary, Joseph Mwale is 5 time Malawi Chess Champion, and has also won a number of high profile tournaments in his new base, Durban. Also on his shelf, are trophies of tournaments on the international scene, and needless to say, he won a myriad of tournaments during the period he was based in Malawi. However, we cannot understand Joseph Mwale without understanding his father, Akim Mwale. Himself, too, a chess player with an unpredictable style. If you are a chess player, visiting the Mwale’s back then in the early 2000s, you would be welcomed by a chess game with their sons: Chuma and George, both older to Joseph. And if you beat them, Mr Mwale would say, “There is still one more before you play me, he is out playing marbles with his friends”, making it sound like the biblical scenario where Jesse is telling Prophet Samuel about David, “There is still one more tending the sheep…..”WhatsApp Image 2018-01-31 at 19.30.15

The then young Joseph, with the red area 25 dust on his clothes and legs, would come, stun you with sacrifices, and humble you-maybe 3 to nothing. Then a frustrated you would take on their father, only to be clobbered again. You would be swallowing the fifth checkmate, when you would hear a female voice: “What do you take?”. It was their sister, Carol, also an able chess player with brilliant style, serving you with some refreshments to cool down the checkmates. Liquor was obviously out of question, the Mwales are devout Adventists. So the drunkards would religiously say “Coke, Please”.

Great Akim had managed to teach all his children the royal game. As more and more chess players chirped in, in the “all –welcoming” Mwale compound, he would be commenting on several issues that come on the table. Be it politics, football, whatsoever the discussion,he was at the top of his game – a brilliant and jovial man, who brought joy to everyone around him.WhatsApp Image 2018-01-31 at 19.30.15

From the verandas of his father’s home, that’s where Joseph’s chess sprouted. As early as 8 years old, he started participating in senior tournaments in Lilongwe. It was not only him, his brothers, Chuma and George also participated in the events, and were reasonably fierce players, but it was Joseph that was the monster. How good were his brothers? Well, at his prime, in 2010, his elder brother, Chuma, represented Malawi at an Olympiad in Khanty Masisyk, Russia, while George qualified for Tromso Olympiad, 2014 in Norway, and failed to make it because of passport issues. But he is still active, and  has qualified for Batumi 2016 Olympiad, too. Chuma is now inactive if not irrelevant in the chess scene, considering nobody really remembers the last time he pushed a pawn in a tournament. Rumour has it he is now a staunch Christian busy doing the service of God.

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Picture from: http://www.labenterprisesmw.com/archive1.html

When I was in my teens and captain for my school’s chess team, Likuni Boys’ Secondary School, a school Joseph would attend years later, at a certain individual tournament sponsored by Dilawo , I was told a 9 year old primary boy had  executed a checkmate on one of the feared players of the tournament. People huddled around the board as the tiny 9 year old boy demonstrated how inevitable the checkmate was in the postmortem. Though he finished 10th in that tournament, the young boy Joseph, left an indelible mark at the tournament.

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In tournaments to come, Joseph continued to be more and more impressive, including in the Club championship games. In one instance, in Likuni Boys vs Joseph Mwale’s club, Super Knights, Joseph was supposed to play our teacher on board one, but our teacher begged not to play him on account that he would be under pressure as the boy’s games were a crowd puller. So as captain, I quickly changed the line up to favour the teacher, who I had personally convinced to be part of the team. The result on the teacher’s new given board does not matter, because we were baptized 4-0.

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Picture from: http://www.labenterprisesmw.com/archive1.html

A year later, at 10, Joseph had turned into a giant killer after beating his dad and the then Lilongwe top player Leonard Sharra in a tournament. In the game he beat his dad, his dad couldn’t believe it. “He trapped my queen”, he said in his authoritative accent while scratching his sporadic grizzly head. Joseph automatically became a newspaper boy. Journalists found his wins a news seller.WhatsApp Image 2018-01-31 at 19.09.00

The same year he beat former national champion, Ulemu Chiluzi in spectacular fashion, a win that would attract top newspaper cartoonist to come up with a cartoon on the scenario in Malawi’s most leading news paper. It was total ridicule. The cartoonist had portrayed Joseph as a baby, in napkins, executing a checkmate on the chess giant, Ulemu Chiluzi. The same year, he beat the then Malawi’s number 2, Gerald Mkangama in spectacular fashion. It was around this period he started representing Malawi at junior level. He represented Malawi at the junior event in Zambia. Though the results there were very unpleasant, the event was an eye opener to the lad. In one interview, Mwale disclosed to top newspaper that his chess idols were Alfred Chimthere and the Razorblade.

His first interaction with a professional chess trainer was in 2006 , and it was Zambian trainer, Musatwe Simutowe, who prepared him and other juniors for the junior tournament in Angola. The dude sharpened his skills further. No wonder his performance in Angola was very good.

A year later in 2007 at a tender age of 13, he became the youngest player in Africa to win the National Championship for Malawi, an achievement that gave him the status of a rock star. For the first time chess was at the back page of Malawi top dailies, overshadowing crowd pullers, Big  Bullets Football Club emphatic win over some minnows the same weekend.WhatsApp Image 2018-01-31 at 17.12.51

But a month later, the young boy Joseph invaded Southern Malawi to demonstrate what it means to be National Champion at the then traditional Lab Enterprises tournament. But there he was given a rude awakening by sacrificial player Makhosi Nyirenda and the combative Macdonald M’bwana. The young boy Joseph went back home to Lilongwe very disappointed.

But a more cruel Joseph came back for the Lab events that followed, almost alternating with his elder brother Chuma in winning the events each time they came to Blantyre.

Since then,  Mwale became a full chess authority in Malawi, winning the National Championship  5 times (but not consecutively), including one which he won when he came as a guest player from South Africa in 2014.

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When he relocated to Durban in 2012, a city of chess , for professional studies, Joseph discovered a career in chess coaching, and got as much exposure as possible in tournaments

He has won countless events in the province, making it possible for him to fend for himself out of chess. Because of his achievements there, he was given the moniker: “The Fear”

At international level, he has represented Malawi at the chess Olympiad twice, including one in Georgia. His maiden appearance at an Olympiad was in 2012, in Ankara, Turkey.

He also represented Malawi at the Africa Individual chess championship in Namibia in 2014.

He was number 5 at the 2016 South African Open

He was also joint 1st at the Swaziland open 2016, and won a major Blitz tournament that included top Zimbabwe player IM Rodwell Makoto and South African hitman Henry Steel.

Recently, he was awarded his long overdue Candidate Master title, which many believe, is an under achievement as the 24 year old deserves more than this common title. We hope this title is a harbinger to greater things to come for Malawi’s highest rated player.

 

 

 

19 comments

  1. Goodness this article is good!!! Makes Mwale sound like a giant Icon everyone should look forward to meeting. Brilliant writing. The narration is authoritative and affectionately personal…so much so that it connects you on a personal level with the family and the community.
    While reading this I’m thinking of Banele and the township of Pienaar where he comes from and the odds of such a place producing such a brilliant chess player.

    This is impeccable writing. I have a feeling the writer is close to the subject of his article. I also get the feeling the writer wants to bring me closer as well. I am really stunned. Even all the best short stories I’ve ever read don’t come close to this. I saw The Fear under a different light and forgave him all his sins

  2. Wow, this story is really amazing. It was as if I was part of the entire journey. Nice write up. Brilliantly captured.

  3. “Josefear” is awesomely talented. However, I still see the boy in the man! Aggression, overconfidence and probably impertinence. Grand tale.

  4. this is awesome writing @Khisho!! I know Joseph Mwale from home country, but I never knew reading an awesome written profile about him will make smile at the mention of Mwale fam!

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