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Nigerian chess master uses game to give underprivileged children a chance at education

'Chess in itself is a fun game that will open them up to a lot of opportunities, but it's also an educational resource.'

Nigerian chess master uses game to give underprivileged children a chance at education
Cover Image Source: Twitter/chessinslums.eth

Tunde Onakoya credits the game of chess for saving his life. Growing up in the slums of Ikorodu, Nigeria, learning how pawns, rooks, bishops, knights, kings and queens move on the checkered board opened up a world of possibilities and opportunities that many Nigerians in his position could only dream about. So, when he visited the Majidun community as a young graduate and saw that nothing had changed—children still living in very poor conditions and unable to access quality education—Onakoya decided to dedicate his life to teaching underprivileged children chess as a means to access quality education and empower them to dream big.

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On September 1, 2018, he launched Chess In Slums Africa. "From the onset, I already knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I knew it was only going to be a matter of time—whether it was going to be 10 years, 15, or 20 years, I didn't know when, but I knew it was going to happen eventually," Onakoya told Global Citizen. "Anytime we start [working] with a child, we see them as pawns on a chessboard. But then, that is not all that there is to them; they have power to become much more valuable, the only difference is access. So we give them that access, we give them information, we give them education, so they can create the future that they want for themselves and become the queen, the most powerful piece on the board."

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So far, the Chess In Slums Africa team has trained more than 500 children and sponsored 100 children to access education through academic scholarship support. "We have our target demographic: children in slum communities. But at the same time, we can't do it for everyone. So whenever we go to a new community, we set out the number that we want to work with," Onakoya explained. "For Oshodi, we set out to [work with] 20 children. We ended up teaching 51 kids. We go to the community and we profile the children, then do a vulnerability assessment to know the children that are the most vulnerable: those that are orphans; the ones that have spent the longest time on the streets; and the girls—because they are the most vulnerable, especially in [those communities we work in]."

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According to Onakoya, while there are many children in poverty in Nigeria and across Africa, some have it worse than others. "99% of the kids in Oshodi don't have a home—they sleep under the bridge. There are some kids that have parents, but ran away from home [due to various reasons], while there are others that are orphans who don't have any family," he said. "You need to be able to listen to them to understand their particular struggles from a very intimate point of view. We treat every child distinctively, so we have that personal connection with each one of them before adding them to our program. For us, chess is the focal point; it is an educational tool."

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"Our programs are divided into three phases: the beginner phase, intermediate, and master. As they progress from zero knowledge of the game through the levels, we have a monitoring and evaluation system and we use the chess-kid curriculum, which is the best curriculum in the world for children to learn chess and compete," Onakoya explained. "When you see a child sitting down for one hour to play chess, it's not just about chess, it's about what it teaches: patience, focus, high-level concentration, critical thinking. So they're learning all those disciplines through chess."

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"Chess in itself is a fun game that will open them up to a lot of opportunities, but it's also an educational resource. For me, education is more like the capacity for thought, for the children to be able to think independently. That is why we are teaching them chess as a way for them to be educated in a different way, to learn how to think for themselves, not teach them what to think but how to think for themselves and come up with solutions for problems," he continued. Since its inception, the Chess in Slums Africa team has made a difference in four communities, carried out over 36,000 hours of chess training and given out $400,000 in academic scholarships.

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"We put the children in our academy who cannot afford education in school," Onakoya revealed. "We sponsor their education and take record of their academic performance in school. Another problem is that children go to school but don't stay in school because they don't see the value of learning and then when it becomes difficult they leave. But children in our academy now understand the value of learning, so more of them stay in school. We have that system that also monitors their progress in school, and in our own program too—how they run through the levels, and how they progress over time. Because we have tests to evaluate their tournament participation and progress based on our curriculum, a lot of children have won tournaments, scholarship opportunities, and more."

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