Babtunde Onakoya teaches chess to young Nigerians in the slums of Lagos. Sport not only conveys important values for life, but can also finance studies abroad.
Concentrated, Junior Monday bends over his chessboard on a rickety plastic table. He plays in the shadow of a dilapidated bridge, surrounded by rubbish, broken glass and dust, surrounded by a group of children in Oshodi, one of the most dangerous slums in the Nigerian metropolis of Lagos.
The sweltering heat and stench don’t seem to bother Junior. Not even the roar of the trains rushing across the rails a few meters behind him. The 15-year-old doesn’t know any different. The slum with dirt, drugs and violence is his home.
Chess slums of Lagos
Like hundreds of thousands of other slum children in West African Nigeria, Junior had little hope of a better life until he met Babtunde Onakoya and his Chess in Slums initiative. Every weekend Onakoya’s team teaches the traditional strategy game to poor and often illiterate children in Oshodi and two other Lagos slums.
In this way, Onakoya wants to unlock the potential of children and show that you can achieve great things even if you start small. “Even a hungry slum kid can master chess with all its intricacies – a game that is highly regarded around the world,” he says.
From kid in barber shop to chess master
Onakoya knows what he’s talking about. As a kid, instead of going to school, he hung out at a neighbor’s barber shop where customers passed the time playing chess. Onakoya learned by watching – and soon became good enough to challenge adults. The board game became his sanctuary. Years later, he became a national champion and won a scholarship that helped him finish school and study computer science. “Chess got me off the streets and saved my life,” Onakoya says in retrospect.
Four years ago he decided to give something back to society. He asked fellow chess players for help and founded “Chess in Slums” as a non-profit organization. They put some old chessboards on the side of the road on weekends, attracting more and more curious and bored children.
“I was blown away by the children’s potential. That’s often the sad story of Africa: the potential is there, but the opportunities are lacking,” says Onakoya. The girls and boys learned incredibly quickly. Within a few weeks, the first would have taken part in small tournaments.
Onakoya trains independent and critical thinking
For Onakoya, chess is more than a game. He wants to give slum children the feeling that they can achieve something in life if they use their minds. “Sooner or later it leads to the realization that a better future is possible.” Many children experienced ambition and the thrill of winning for the first time in their lives. With the help of chess their independent and critical thinking is trained, says Onakoya. Also teach chess how to lose and then bounce back.
Since the initiative’s inception in 2018, Onakoya has taught chess to more than 500 children – inspiring them to be strategic on the board and in life. More than 30 particularly talented children have received scholarships for school education and university studies.
“I was fascinated by the way the pieces were arranged, how they looked,” recalls 17-year-old Ayomide Ojo of his first day on Chess in Slums. He hopes that the game will one day enable him to escape from Oshodi, where he is a street kid who faces constant hunger and violence.
The board game is a way out of the slums
Ayomide’s role model is 16-year-old Michael Omoyele Obafemi, who thanks to “Chess in Slums” represented Nigeria at the African Youth Championship in neighboring Ghana and won numerous other tournaments. Michael is now waiting for a university scholarship in Canada, where he wants to train as a chartered accountant.
His parents and six siblings rely on him, says Michael. His father is unemployed and his mother makes ends meet as a day labourer. “My parents pray for me every day and count the days until I can travel to Canada and save our family,” he says proudly.
support from the USA
Word of the success of “Chess in Slums” has spread far and wide, even in the USA. Tyrone Davis III, US National Chess Master and president of the chess club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, is now financing a scholarship at the renowned university for one of Onakoya’s students.
Davis, who runs a similar chess initiative called “The Gift of Chess” in New York, met 12-year-old Benjamin Kisegbeji on a visit to Lagos in March, and made a great impression on him. “He was the strongest player, and I quickly understood why. He’s ambitious and determined to use chess as a path to success, on and off the board,” says Davis.
“I know from personal experience that chess develops the ability to think, to command respect and to build an identity, regardless of social background,” says Davis. Chess could offer kids like Benjamin a real chance for a fresh start.