Chess in Slums
According to the World Bank, in 2019 Nigeria ranked second of the five countries with the highest number of extremely poor people. The 2022 Nigeria Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) survey noted that 63% of residents of Nigeria and 67.5% of the children are multidimensionally poor. Lack of education contributes to poverty likelihood, and increasing and improving education is a poverty-reduction strategy. Ironically, in Nigeria, playing chess in slums by out-of-school slum kids is also contributing to poverty reduction.

Effect of Poverty in Nigeria: Out-of-School Children Turned “Agberos”

According to 2020 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates, about 10.5 million Nigerian five-to-14-year-old children were out-of-school. In 2022, that figure increased to 18.5 million due to a high rate of attacks from jihadists. About 60% of the out-of-school students are girls. In addition, only 35% of Nigerian children attend early childhood classes and only 61% of six-to-ll-year-olds regularly attend primary school classes.  This is despite the fact that primary school is free and compulsory in Nigeria.

Some of the out-of-school students live with their parents who do not enroll them so they can help them beg on the street. Others have run away from home or are orphans whose home is on the streets. Left to roam the streets, these children get involved in mischief that gets them into trouble in the community. They are usually called “agberos,” a Yoruba word for “thugs,” “hoodlums” or “street boys” who wind up increasing the level of criminal activities and insecurity in the country, which is an effect of poverty in Nigeria.

Chess in Slums: Keeping Out-of-School Students Off the Streets

Babatunde Onakoya founded Chess in Slums Africa (CISA) in 2018. This nonprofit organization’s goal is to teach underprivileged children how to play chess to keep them off the street. The founder uses the metaphor that just like the pawn can become a queen, underprivileged children can also become kings and queens.

For someone who lived in one of the Nigerian slums, Onakoya could relate to the out-of-school children. His parents could not afford his secondary school fees and so could not enroll in one. Luckily, a year later,  his mother got to work in a school for free in exchange for his education. By this time, he had learned to play chess by watching a barber and his opponent play several times. He got better at it, won tournaments, played in university and eventually became a professional chess tutor.

When Babatunde graduated from university and did not have a job, he and his chess friends began teaching chess to children in the community of Majidun in Lagos. The team began to teach children how to play chess, by visiting them on specific days, like Saturdays and Sundays in Majidun, to teach them basic rules, movements and tricks of the board game that people often perceive to be only for elites.

CISA Training and Success

CISA organizes its training into three phases: beginner,  intermediate and master. It monitors and evaluates students as they progress through the “chess-kid curriculum” that Onakoya chose because of its strength elsewhere in both teaching and competition coaching.

As Onakoya noted, “For me, education is more like the capacity for thought, for the children to be able to think independently. That is why we are giving 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 exactly to think but how to think for themselves, to come up with solutions for problems.”

In an interview with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Onakoya 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.”

Chess in Slums Reach and Success

CISA now works in several communities in Nigeria and even has started a chess academy in Burkino Faso. With more than 1,000 children enrolled, 500 of them have reached the intermediate level. Students have earned more than $400,000 in 200 academic scholarships. Future goals include enrolling 5,000 students, raising a million dollars to sponsor $1,000 a student to attend school and establishing programs across Africa.

– Oluwagbohunmi Bajela
Photo: Wikipedia Commons