A knight's tale: How chess is keeping children off the streets in Nigeria

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Chess in Slums, Facebook
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  • Chess is being used as a weapon against drugs, crime and poverty in Nigeria.
  • Chess in Slums Africa has influenced over a thousand children. 
  • The target is to reach all corners of Africa and to help at least a million children in the next five years.

Slum communities in Nigeria are like a snake pit, where one fights for territory from as early as pre-teen years.

Faced with social ills, such as poverty and homelessness, there's hardly an escape route for children. In most cases, they never reach their full potential as they are slowly drawn into a life of crime, drugs and prostitution.

It could have been the case for Babatunde "Tunde" Onakoya, 28, who at the age of 10 was likely to go down the same path that would lead to self-destruction.

But, as he sat at a barber shop one day, a man gave him a chess set.

The gift would keep him busy and away from the wrong path.

"This single action opened doors for Tunde. He went on to become the 10th highest-rated chess player in Nigeria," said Samuel Awobajo, a friend of Tunde and his business partner.

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In a country where boys who escape poverty mostly do it through football, with names such as Odion Ighalo, Anthony Nwakaeme, and Emmanuel Emenike, to name a few, Tunde took a unique route.

Since September 2018, he has been helping kids, in situations similar to his, in the best way he knew - the chess board.

"Tunde imagined a world where children have the opportunity to reach their full potential and they don't have to drop out of school to continue the cycle of poverty. The idea of Chess in Slums Africa was conceived," said Awobajo.

Through Chess in Slums Africa, an initiative to provide teaching and mentorship to underprivileged kids, Tunde and his crew have managed to keep children in school, away from child labour, and to help reconfigure their mindsets.

"Ours is to promote learning through chess education with service, philanthropy and mentorship," said Awobajo, who is also the operations manager of Chess in Slums Africa.

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"Chess has been perceived to be the game of the elites, but Chess in Slums Africa is changing this narrative. We are creating a new narrative, where every human, regardless of their background, can sit at the same table with something in common.

"We are using chess to break that cycle of poverty and illiteracy in slum communities and we are creating a new story, where the Nigerian child can become whatever he puts his mind to because of the gift of chess."

In its profile, Chess in Slums Africa has four main objectives - skills acquisition, mentorship, helping kids with scholarship opportunities, and chess education.

The road is bumpy, so it takes a lot to change mindsets.

"One great challenge we faced was in Oshodi when chess was introduced to children living under the bridge. We had children who were already abusing drugs and joining gangs from as early as 11 years old. Oshodi is one of the most avoided places in Lagos, especially at night because of the violence that goes on there," said Awobajo.

However, since 2018, over 1 000 children's lives have been influenced by chess.

"So far, Chess in Slums Africa has worked with over 1 000 children - between the ages of 7 and 18 - in different communities and we are looking to reach one million children in the next five years," he said.

Because of the good work, Chess in Slums Africa has gained recognition and attention from international media and also partnered with the Canadian High Commission.

Now they are calling for international ambassadors, "people who can use their voices and platforms to tell the beautiful stories of these children and break the cycle of poverty".

Outside Nigeria, it has spread into Kaya, Burkina Faso, as part of their vision to reach every corner of Africa in the future.

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The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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