"Saved my life": For slum children, chess is more than a game

Children who grow up in the slums of Nigeria have little chance of a good future.

"Saved my life": For slum children, chess is more than a game

Children who grow up in the slums of Nigeria have little chance of a good future. "Chess in Slums" wants to change that. Through the organization girls and boys learn how to play chess. And there are first successes to report.

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. 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 game of strategy 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 great things can be achieved even if you start small. "Even a hungry, ragged slum kid can master chess in all its intricacies - a game highly regarded around the world," he says.

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 by the roadside on weekends, attracting more and more curious and bored kids. "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.

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. Chess teaches them to think independently and critically, says Onakoya. Also, chess teaches how to lose and then bounce back.

Since the initiative's inception in 2018, Onakoya has taught more than 500 children chess - 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.

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 many 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.

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 he was greatly impressed. "He was the strongest player and I quickly understood why. He's ambitious and determined to use chess as a way to succeed, on and off the board," Davis says, adding, "I know from personal experience that chess is the The ability to think, to demand respect and to build an identity, regardless of social background". Chess can offer children like Benjamin a real chance for a fresh start.

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