Meet Onakoya, a chess coach who changed lives of Nigerian slum children

3 months ago 34

CHENNAI: The Makoko slum, situated on the Lagos lagoon in southwest Nigeria, has long been known as the floating slum or even nicknamed the ‘Venice of Africa’. But Makoko is fast gaining prominence for producing chess players thanks to the relentless efforts put in by coach Babatunde Onakoya and his team which run the Chess in Slums Africa --- a non-profit entity.
Among the many success stories that has emerged out of Makoko is 10-year-old Maumo Ferdinand who in May this year won the junior category of a local event less than a few weeks into learning the basics of the game. Ferdinand --- affected by cerebral palsy --- caught the attention of Onakoya who with his team had gone to train children in the slum. At the conclusion of two weeks of intense training, an event was conducted which saw Ferdinand being the standout performer. “He is a natural talent and in no time --- Ferdinand was making moves which was a delight to everyone,” Onakoya told TOI.
Ferdinand, who comes from a low-income group, was regularly mocked by his peers for being disabled but his prowess in chess meant that it was no longer the case. Ferdinand’s talent didn’t go unnoticed as he got to play a ceremonial game against Governor of the Lagos state Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu. The encounter lasted about 30 minutes and ended in a draw. Babajide also awarded Ferdinand a million Nigerian Naira and went on to offer scholarship support for him and his siblings’ education. Ferdinand is among the many youngsters who have benefited from Chess in Slums initiative in Africa.

Maumo Ferdinand during a session conducted by Chess in Slums
Onakoya, 26, started the project in 2018 and uses chess as a framework to offer children in low-income communities access to education and mentorship. “There has been countless research on the benefits of chess and how it aids cognition. More importantly, chess leaves a long lasting impact in the minds of the young people. For children in these communities --- their family can’t afford to have three full meals every day. Some of the kids have to do menial jobs to support their parents and it becomes impossible to get them to go to school or get education. So, I use chess to bridge that gap,” Onakoya explained. He and his team of volunteers engage with the children ---and teach them the rules of the game.
“The process of learning chess requires a lot of discipline and a lot of effort and getting them to get to school. Our team has trained more than 200 children and about 50 of them have got scholarship support in school,” he pointed out. Onakoya feels his volunteers have been tireless in their efforts and that’s what has been giving results. “It costs money to put in the training centre, equipment and to get trainers. Also, getting accessibility to these communities can be difficult sometimes. But we have some very committed volunteers and they have been braving these challenges,” he stated.
Despite the odds, Onakoya believes in the power chess has to shape the future of the children in slums. “Nigeria has one of the worst slums in the world and it also has the worst education crisis in the world. More than 70 million children are out of school and we are targeting these vulnerable ones to teach them chess and give them some scholarship support so that they can get back to school. Chess is a game respected all over the world. We are teaching them so that the children grow beyond their poverty. They are able to see the prestige that comes from the knowledge of the game and it’s important to do this so that people see them in a different light,” Onakoya mentioned.
Onakoya is fully aware that not all children he trains will go on to become a Grandmaster. “We are not training them to be Grandmaster because not all of them will be talented enough to become pro or become masters. Chess is not the end in itself but a means to an end for a lot of them. Chess is a great disrupter and it engages the mind critically and so it’s a game that will keep the children off the street. Instead of getting the children involved in criminal activities --- chess engages their mind and that’s our main motive is,” explained Onakoya.
Chess in Slums project has gone overseas as well with the team expanding its initiative in Burkina Faso recently. “We set up a program at an orphanage in a village called Kaya in Burkina Faso. The village has been destabilised due to terrorist attacks. A lot of children don’t go to school and people have been displaced. We have set up our intervention there by teaching them chess and also get them to connect with a global community of chess players and we started this recently. It’s actually shown us that our program can be replicated in other countries. We have got emails from Scotland, Lebanon and the United States asking how we can come there and set up our program in the low-income communities,” revealed Onakoya.
He is also keen to expand the operations in India in the near future. “I have got good friends in India. We also look forward to expanding our operations there as India has a massive population of children and this program will be massively beneficial there to nurture champions. We have access to a lot of technology thanks to our partnerships with and as we want our children to get nothing but the best possible facilities,” he said.

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