Why I Teach Chess in the Slum: A Conversation with Tunde Onakoya

Founder of Chess in Slums Initiative, Tunde Onakoya, sits with the host of #WithChude, Chude Jideonwo. On the show, he shared about forgoing his dream to travel abroad to teach chess to children in slums for free, surviving debilitating poverty, the serious medical condition he had to struggle with, and how he feels now that the dream he has has taken him all over the world and brought billionaires and vice presidents to his door.

Tunde shared his decision to teach chess to children in underprivileged communities and how no one understood for the first four years. “Whatever endeavour you decide to pursue, the intent is important. When you do good work, the integrity of what you do shines through. There are several misconceptions about the game of chess.

Someone once said, ‘Watching people play chess is like watching paint dry.’ What helped me was that I had one metric for measuring success. The greatest metric for measuring success for me was in the lives of children. It was not based on my popularity or those who donated or funded me. I didn’t even know that there was a development sector and that there was funding; it was just a passion project.”

“As we continued, I saw that the process was changing the children and making them see they could also be intellectually inclined. I think this changes the entire premise when we talk about children in Africa. Children are represented as tattered and at their worst, but now the premise has changed from children in poverty to children who can think for themselves,” he added.

Tunde Onakoya shared about growing up poor and how he had to drop out of school after primary school because his parents could not afford his tuition anymore. He shared that it was in the two years while he was at home that he came in contact with the game of chess. “I was just fascinated with the way the chess pieces were carved. I wanted to learn what it was, but they were like, you are too young to learn. But I kept going back there to just watch how they played. By just watching, I was able to pick up the rules.

They will always say things like, you have to be very smart to play chess, and chess makes people very smart. To me, being smart looked like a way of equalizing the playing field, so, that was what got me interested. And the summary is that chess changed my life.”

Speaking further on his radical decision to sacrifice his dreams to teach chess, Tunde shared, “There was no plan; it was crazy. It was just like something else was controlling me, and that was what made my parents worried. They were like, ‘What’s going on?’ because you know our situation: a lot of my friends had travelled out, a lot of them were getting into crypto, a lot of them into tech, and here I was at the age of 23, thinking about charity; it just didn’t make any sense, and I didn’t even have any experience. I didn’t even know that charity was like a ‘thing thing’; I only knew they were NGOs, and I didn’t understand the details of it.

Tunde spoke about what made him successful. “I think that’s the thing about faith, just having faith in your idea and having the courage to impress it upon the world. I think it’s an important decision every young person should explore. At some point in your life, just quit your job for, like, six months and have faith in something. Don’t take my advice; don’t be like me. It’s an indescribable feeling, something that pushes you much farther than any form of incentive, right? Even if it was for money, it was not a logical decision, or if it was for fame. Like, how do you even get famous for something like this? There was no picture. No one has done this, especially in the way that I wanted it to look. There was no template to show that if I did this, this would happen.

“At first, there was no plan and no idea, but something happened with Basirat. I remember she was always very punctual to the class, as at the time she was 5 years old, really small, and was always punctual with her big skirt. She would come, and I would carry her and ask her, ‘Basirat, kilo fe di to ba dagba?’ (What do you want to be when you grow older’ and she would say ‘nurse’. So, a lot of people in the community knew her as ‘Mama Nurse’. She wasn’t in school and had never been to school before as her parents were really poor, but she would always say she wanted to be a nurse as that was the only thing she saw, maybe watching TV at her neighbour’s place. On that day, I just wanted to express myself because I was doing those things that I felt so deeply connected to, but I didn’t know how to explain them to people; I didn’t know how to articulate them properly.

But another day, I just decided to write about this little girl who was part of our chess club, was always punctual, and had an amazing smile. So, I took a picture of her, posted it and wrote it poetically, and I just went to bed. I woke up the next day, and I saw it had gone viral on Facebook like thousands of people, from all over the world, saw this little girl holding a chess pod and were drawn to her. People have now started saying, ‘Tunde, that girl, I want to sponsor her education up until university level’, to people from around the world. I am not even talking about Nigeria, and I barely use social media. It was just a random post on Facebook. That was it. That was just how being with them, sharing their stories, and teaching them chess became a gateway to another opportunity: education.

“For me, it now felt like a superpower, and you know, in Spiderman, it says that with great power comes great responsibility, so I just felt a deep responsibility to all of them because the world didn’t know Basira before, but because I shared her story, the world now knows her. But then, there wasn’t just Basirat; there was Jamiu, Ayomide, and all of them. So, I started writing more and felt like being able to write their stories was my superpower, right? And it was an important bridge to connect them with the people who could help them. The more I did that, I posted about Ayomide next, and another person saw it, and they were like, ‘I would like to sponsor’. So, two children had gotten scholarships, a way to go back to school. So, I wrote more; it became ten; it became fifteen; and that was the plan. That became the plan.”

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