4th February 2023
  • 9:11 pm Through the Eyes of Ides Ofune – Women Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between Motherhood and Higher Education
  • 11:32 am Meet the 2022 shortlisted authors for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
  • 5:13 am 6 African startups among World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers 2022 cohort
  • 1:01 pm Canadian Based NGO GoldenKes Foundation holds First Empowerment Program in Nigeria 
  • 5:38 am Meet the 6 Africans shortlisted for 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
  • 7:49 am Facebook invests in fibre optic cables to improve internet access in Edo State

In 2021, when pictures of children wearing fila and playing chess surfaced on the internet, Chess In Slums, the organization behind the initiative, was suddenly thrust into the limelight. The story of this small organisation however did not start with these pictures. Chess in Slums started with Babatunde Onakoya—the boy who had to stay home when his parents could not afford his school fees. His personal story could be said to be the story of the organisation he founded. A game that set him on the path to greatness. Babatunde hopes to achieve same in the lives of other children.

Early Days 

Babatunde Onakoya was living in Isale-odo, Lagos state Nigeria when he discovered chess in a barbershop.  Tunde’s fascination and curiosity about the boardgame helped him to learn the game. He learnt by watching the barber play chess with other people. By 2015, whilst studying Computer Science at Yaba College of Technology, Yaba, Lagos, Onakoya would give chess lessons in schools as far as Sango-ota in Ogun State. His aim was to teach children in low-income communities how to play chess. “I didn’t know how it will change their lives or put food on the table,” he said about those days. “And now, it has become this revolutionary project that is creating something deeply impactful in the lives of these children”.

This is his story too. Babatunde did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. According to him, life was rough and shoddy. “There was a point in my life when I couldn’t go to school. I was out of school for a couple of years because my parents couldn’t afford to put me in school at the time,” he said in an exclusive interview with Technext. “It was in that time that I discovered chess…It really saved my life, he continued”

Babatunde Onakoya wearing the Chess in Slums fila

To finish his formal education, his mother offered to work in a school for free in exchange and he was able to eventually finish schooling. By the time he was in Junior Secondary School 2 (JSS2), Tunde had won his first chess tournament and went on to represent his school. According to him, for the first time in his life, he saw his father cry: his child was excelling at something.

The Birth of Chess In Slums Africa

Fast forward to 2018, Babatunde, now a professional chess player and tutor with his team of 20 people went to Majidun, Lagos state to launch Chess In Slums. At that time, there were no flashing cameras, only a group of people waiting at the back of the Baale (traditional ruler) of Majidun’s palace for their first chess students. The team sharing their experience on the organization’s website wrote:

“We settled in quickly with a 5-Man squad on ground to arrange the tables and chairs for the first day of training 100 Majidun Children in the game of Chess while other team members went around to get the children in the community together to commence the Chess training”.

With the promise of incentives, about 200 children joined the training on the first day. The lessons took place around 1pm on Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays. By following the method of execution from the famous Queen of Katwe movie, the team had to ensure the children were fed after the classes— even bearing the burden of feeding when necessary. As is the sad case of most children in underserved areas, many of the children had their weekend meals from attending the class training whilst others joined only for the food. 

Interestingly, it was the picture of a 5 year old girl, Basirat holding a queen chess piece and smiling that drew the public’s attention to the initiative. For a child whose parents could barely afford to feed all their children and sponsor their education, Basirat wanted to be a nurse. She went on to receive a lifelong scholarship from a philanthropist and now attends a proper Montessori Primary School not far from her community under the CIS-A Scholarship Support.

Beyond the Chess Game

Although Babatunde was not certain how chess would benefit the children, the initiative changed their lives in many ways. Chess in Slums has made a tremendous impact in Majidun, Makoko and most recently Oshodi in the past four years. Over 200 children have received scholarships. The initiative has also produced Chess Champions from the Slums consisting of 6 strong under 13 girls category, 5 Under 18 girls and and 10 under 18 boys Chess category with an average of 1500 elo rating.

Chess in Slums

Chess in Slums Africa (CIS-A) has partnered with various initiatives to improve the lives of the children living in these slums. Their most recent partnership with kidsthatcode helped some of the children including Fawas Adeoye, a former bus conductor and the 2021 winner of Chess in Slums tournament in Oshodi, learn coding. Some of the children showed off their portfolio on their demo day.

They have also partnered with Medplus to give the children free healthcare services and medical checks. At the famous “under bridge” at Oshodi, some of the children one will encounter there have either run away from home or are left alone to cater for themselves. In their other roles, CIS-A reunited some of these children with their families. 

A Bigger Dream

Babatunde Onakoya has received a number of recognitions including the Future Award for Community. He has been featured in prominent organisations such as BBC, Reuters and Technext. Most recently, Patrice Evra, a former Manchester United player couldn’t hide his excitement about the initiative during his visit to Nigeria. The former football player took to his Twitter page to share his thoughts. 

For the convener of CIS-A, Babatunde Onakoya, this is just the beginning of his dream of building “the biggest chess academy in the world for children in impoverished communities, for orphans to not just learn chess, but learn important life skills for the future of work.” His mandate is to raise $1 million from donations and sell as many filas as possible.

“Chess is not the end in itself, but it’s a means to several ends. That’s why we are seeking partnerships to be able to bring more opportunities for the children,” he said. “We want to lead the revolution.”

Ruth Torty

Ruth Torty is a biochemist, and freelance science writer. She writes to shed light on health issues, rare diseases and science research in Nigeria. She is also a creative writer and has published on different literary sites including Spillwords and Nnoko Stories. She is passionate about genomics and its role in healthcare.