How chess became an escape for children living in a Nigerian slum

Chess in Slums Africa founder Babatunde Onakoya tells olympics.com how the game has improved the mindset of children in some of Lagos' poorest neighbourhoods.

By Evelyn Watta

Chess has sometimes been seen as a status symbol.

But for the children of Majidun, a slum suburb in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos, the game of kings and queens is an escape from the difficulties of everyday life.

Babatunde Onakoya founded Chess in Slums Africa - an initiative to provide teaching and mentorship to underprivileged kids - by chance.

Initially his only intention was to teach the game to kids to keep them occupied, but it was an instant hit.

“A lot of the kids weren't going to school. They were doing menial jobs to support their parents. I just got them together and started teaching them chess,” Onakoya told Olympics.com ahead of World Mental Health Day - October 10.

“Chess is a great equalizer. It’s a game where anyone can play. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or disabled or rich or poor. You know there are no disparities or stereotypes.” - Babatunde Onakoya to Olympics.com

Since forming the initiative in 2018, he has transformed and inspired over 200 children, who are now pursuing better moves on the boards and in life.

Babatunde Onakoya, Founder Chess in Slums Africa.

Chess: ‘A great equalizer’

The chess national master dedicated his life to teaching a game that he first came across in one of Nigeria’s harshest neighbourhoods.

“I was privileged, because chess gave me an escape and that was what saved my life. A lot of the young people I grew up with got into drugs, nothing happened or changed for them,” he explained.

“Chess took me off the streets because I represented my college, I didn't have to pay tuition, it gave me a lot of opportunities.”

After falling on hard times recently, Onakoya went back to living in Majidun, the floating slum he’d called home for many years.

Even at the lowest point of his life, chess gave the computer science graduate a way out: he decided to introduce the game that saved him to the children in the slum.

But why chess?

“Chess is sometimes perceived to be for the elite. But I wanted people to start seeing that even a child poor, hungry, and tattered from the slums could master the game of chess and master all its intricacies, a game that is prestigious and respected all over the world.

“So you would not look at the child as just a poor person from the slums, but as a person who has intellectual capacity but only lacks basic needs,” Onakoya reasoned a point that accentuated the motto of chess "Gens una sumus", which is Latin for "We are one people".

More than a game

That day in 2018 marked the start of an exciting chess adventure for the kids of Majidun.

“I was completely astounded by what we were able to do in one day. Master the basics, the rules of the game, the movements of the pieces,” he recalled of the introduction classes.

“They had incredible potential, but one thing they didn’t have is opportunity. That is the sad story of Africa.”

“I thought deeply about what I could really do to change that narrative. I didn't have money then, but I just knew that I had a couple of chess boards and it wasn't going to cost a lot just to keep going there to teach that.”

And with that, the 27-year-old began a life-changing new mission.

“We were having so many children coming to our tournaments, and just had maybe three or four chess boards. I got my friends, some of whom were masters, and we taught the kids together. We did this consistently for about three months and started taking the kids out for tournaments because they were learning at such an incredible pace.”

Children playing chess in the slums of Makoko, Nigeria.

But keeping hungry children engaged was not always easy.

He was introducing a ‘fun game’ but faced strong opposition from the children’s parents, most of whom fished for a living.

“It was an arduous task trying to convince the parents to even let the kids participate because they would rather have the kids doing menial jobs to support them,” Onakoya explained.

“A child in the slums, first, the need for that child would be to survive the deal and have food to eat and all of that. So, we promised to give them food at the end of every training session, that was the first point of attraction” Onakoya explained.

It was a good move. Just like on the chess boards the ‘chess slum master’ accumulated the small advantages and converted them to permanent ones.

The success of his programme meant support in terms of scholarships for about 30 children, who had never had formal education.

Chess is the gymnasium of the mind

The children have also acquired important life skills.

“That’s the beauty of the game. It captures the interest of a child because rather than just learning those skills they are also having fun while doing it. They also get to compete, experience the thrill of being good at something, the thrill of winning. And sometimes they lose and cry. Then they start learning important lessons about failure,” Onakoya continued.

Chess has helped improve the mental health of the children, who constantly battle the psychological toll of living in a slum.

“It’s easy to give children from poor places food when they're hungry, but when you give them food today, and tomorrow they go hungry, what happens? It’s not sustainable!

"That’s why we taught them chess to help their mindset so they can become independent and better thinkers.

“Now think of chess as the gymnasium of the mind, even something that builds the mind when you need to learn how to think, critically, think of chess in that way.”

One of the top achievers of the programme is Ferdinand a boy with cerebral palsy who was often mocked for his chronic condition.

"Chess can help change lives, and beyond just beyond being champions they can start thinking critically for themselves and create the kind of future they want," he said.

"The process of learning chess and trying to understand some of these complex things builds mental capacity over time. These children don’t speak any English words but over time, you see them using words like prophylaxis whenever we do group analysis together. Research has proven this time and time again that chess is a perfect game for mental development."

The success of the pilot programme has seen Chess in Slums Africa expand to three other informal settlements including in Makoko, the world’s largest floating slum on the coast of Lagos, and in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

Onakoya hopes to spread chess even further and reach up to one million African children, proving to the world that it’s possible 'to do great things from a small place'.

“We aim to show that children from slum communities, who have been marginalized for so long, also have the potential to do great things given the right opportunities. We want to create this new narrative for the African child.”

A boy playing chess in the slums of Makoko, Nigeria.