Ugandan actress Nikita Pearl Waligwa who appeared in the inspirational 2016 Disney film Queen of Katwe about a chess prodigy has died at the age of 15. She died on Saturday while in the hospital due to a brain tumor. Waligwa attended Gayaza High School in Uganda where she was in her senior year. The school shared the news of her death, tweeting she was a “darling to many.” 

Waligwa had been in and out of the hospital for treatment as well as surgery for her brain cancer. She was first diagnosed with the tumor in 2016, and Queen of Katwe director Mira Nair reportedly helped create a fundraiser to go towards Waligwa’s medical bills. The young actress traveled to India for urgent specialized treatment and radiation therapy when Ugandan doctors didn’t have the necessary equipment. The BBC reported that Waligwa recovered in 2017 following her treatment; however, the young actress received news last year that another tumor—a larger one—was found subsequently.

Queen of Katwe tells the real-life story of a nine-year-old Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi, portrayed by Madina Nalwanga who goes from selling maize in the market to competing in international chess tournaments. She, her single mother, and two siblings live in poverty in the Kampala slum of Katwe. But a local missionary and chess instructor, portrayed by Selma actor David Oyelowo, teaches Phiona to play chess, and he soon notices Phiona’s remarkable skill with the strategic board game. Her mother, portrayed by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o is troubled by her daughter’s growing interest in chess and warns her, “You will be disappointed.” Still, Phiona’s confidence grows as she continues her training—as does her determination to pursue her dream of becoming a chess champion. And she comes to see chess as a way to help her family escape a life of poverty. Queen of Katwe had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and was subsequently released in U.S. theaters.

The film was shot in the Katwe slums of Kampala, Uganda as well as in South Africa. Over a hundred Ugandan youngsters with no acting experience were hired to be in the film, which was a great opportunity as they had to work alongside the likes of acting greats Nyong’o and Oyelowo. Oyelowo plays Robert Katende, the missionary who coaches Phiona as she works to become a top-tier chess player. And Waligwa portrays a chess player named Gloria who teaches Phiona the rules of the game and memorably says, “In chess, the small one can become the big one.”

Lupita Nyong’o took to social media upon hearing the sad news, to pay tribute to the young actress: 

“It is with great sadness that I post about the passing of Nikita Waligwa, the sweet, warm, talented girl whom I worked with on the film ‘Queen of Katwe.’ She played Gloria with such vibrancy. In her real life, she had the enormous challenge of battling brain cancer. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and community as they come to terms with having to say goodbye so soon. May she truly rest in [peace]. May it be well with her soul.”

David Oyelowo also paid tribute to Waligwa on Instagram saying she was a “ball of light.” “We mourn the loss of our beautiful Nikita Pearl Waligwa,” he wrote. “She was a ball of light in @queenofkatwemovie and in life. Her battle with a brain tumor was humbling to witness. Her light will live on. #rip.”

Here is a video of Waligwa in 2019, hoping to raise money for her second operation in India.

Rest in peace, Nikita Pearl Waligwa.

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