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Who Is Tunde Onakoya?
Tunde Onakoya is the founder of Chess in Slums Africa, an initiative that aims to empower young ones in impoverished communities by using the game of chess. Tunde grew up in one of those communities with little hope of having a better life but chess helped him find a way out. Now he hopes to help more kids find opportunities to improve their lives through chess.
Tunde Onakoya Age
Tunde Onakoya is currently about 26 years old.
Tunde Onakoya grew up in the Isale Odo community in Ikorodu, and like many kids living in slums, he didn’t have access to a lot of things. By the time he finished primary school, his family was too poor to send him to a secondary school, so he stayed at home for 2 years while his mum worked as a cleaner at Yintab College in Agric, Ikorodu, to save up some money for his education.
During that period, he learned to play chess at a barber’s shop. He would later be ranked as the number 13 chess player in Nigeria.
Fast forward to 2015, Tunde Onakoya is now a graduate and the big question comes: what do I do with my life? There was nothing concrete – a few piano plays in church and private chess lessons here and there. Tunde had hoped that he would be able to teach chess in schools and introduce chess into schools’ curriculum, but it was not to be.
One day, he went to visit someone in the Majidun community and saw a lot of children in slums, many of whom were not attending schools. Chess had given Tunde a lot of life-changing opportunities, and he wanted to do the same for these children he saw in Majidun. “I wanted to give them something to be hopeful about,” he says. Dusk and dawn, he dreamt about these children and what chess could do for them, “I became obsessed with the thought. I would Google silly things like ‘how chess can change a life, and watch Queen of Katwe over and over again.”
He called his friends and went to Majidun with them. They gathered about five kids and taught them how to play chess. 5 became 10, 20, 35 – and then about a hundred.
That was his turning point.
The children’s reception to the game of chess, the avidity with which they moved each piece – even when they weren’t sure if their moves were right or wrong, and the vociferousness of Basirat who held on tightly to his trouser, begging him to give her a chess piece, bore a lot of significance for him. Basirat was 5 years of age at that time and when he randomly shared her story on Facebook, people donated for her, and someone promised to sponsor her education to the university level. Basirat would later become the poster child for ChessinSlums.
Tunde Onakoya knew he had found his calling, and his path was clear: find more children like Basirat.
He then went to meet the Baale of the community with a proposal to teach the kids on weekends. He would teach them chess, mathematics, vocabulary, and have pep talks with them.
On the 1st of September, 2018, ChessinSlumsAfrica was (officially) born.
Chess teaches children to think for themselves. It educates their minds and inspires the love of learning in them. ChessinSlums uses the game of chess as a medium to give educational opportunities to children who have no access to education or are too poor to get one. This NGO would become a revolution that could solve the education crisis and literacy problem in the country and beyond.
So far, Tunde and his team have done well. There are over 200 kids who are being taught how to play chess and about 20 children on full scholarship in and out of the country – one of them is Odunayo Williams, the national under 10 female chess champion in Nigeria. Tunde says of the children, “They have incredible potential to do more but life had chosen a different path for them.”
The Majidun community is like many not-too-privileged communities we see in Lagos: bumpy untarred roads, face-me-I-face-you homes, heaps of dirt here and there, poor drainage system, and many little ponds of stagnant greenish water.
A few days after I had a conversation with Tunde Onakoya on Zoom, I alighted from the bike at the Baale’s house at Oja-Ale, Majidun in Ikorodu to be a part of a chess tournament Tunde had graciously invited me to. Not too far from where my bike man stopped, the excited squeals of children welcomed me. There were a few long tables with chess boards on them, and two categories – junior and senior – of players. Some children seated around these tables moving chess pieces about while others stood close, cheering their friends on.
I spotted Tunde Onakoya immediately in a black shirt, a hat on his head, a piece of paper in hand, moving about, checking what the kids were playing, and writing down the names of winners. The winners were given cash prizes and the overall winner went home with 10,000 naira. After the tournament, each child was given a bottle of soda and a snack.
“It costs money to do these things.” Dusk was setting in and Shadrack who lives in the Oja-Ale community in Majidun and is a (very friendly) volunteer tour guide for ChessinSlums was taking us to Basirat’s house and, at the same time, showing us around the community. I agreed with him. The children’s shrieks of joy do not just come from moving chess pieces; many work hard because there are cash prizes attached to winning. I also noticed the way their eyes lit up when they got their snacks.
You cannot teach a hungry child chess, nor can you teach a homeless one.
In the community is a lagoon. At its bank are little wooden “toilets” raised high above water level. The community members enter the “toilets” and defecate into the lagoon and the water carries the excretion away. “Breeze blows into your anus as you excrete, it’s the best feeling,” Shadrack joked.
As we walked to Basirat’s house, Shadrack pointed to a little shack at the shore of the sea where one of the ChessinSlums “children” used to live. The tiny shack was already in ruins; it was filled with dirt, little broken furniture and used items. “This is where they used to stay, before Tunde got them an apartment,” Shadrack says.
Being the founder of ChessinSlums also means one thing: you spend a lot. Tunde Onakoya doesn’t only feed these kids, he also changes the economic status of their families by getting apartments and furnishing them for those who are homeless, and education for those who do not go to school. He also told me he plans to adopt two of the ChessinSlum children who lost their mother to HIV.
How does he get the fund? “When I started, I used to reach out to people I know for help, I teach chess privately to make money, so I beg the parents of my students to help out in any way they can,” he says. Now, it gets better; the more Tunde shares the stories of these kids on social media the more people are willing to donate and help in any way they can.
Now, Tunde Onakoya has a gofundme page where you can donate to help ChessinSlums kids. He also got global recognition when the kids from ChessinSlums drew a tie in a virtual match against students of the University of California. During the pandemic, ChessinSlums also partnered with Chesskids to provide digital learning resources (iPads) for the kids. Private individuals also provide scholarships to ChessinSlum children and this, to an extent, takes care of their education.
Today, ChessinSlums is beyond Majidun, it has extended to Mafoluku community in Oshodi and in Makoko where a child, Ferdinand, with Cerebral Palsy won a chess tournament. Tunde Onakoya is changing the lives of children, one chess piece at a time
Tunde’s goal is to extend this to as many slums as he can reach, and provide innovative solutions using chess, but beyond that, he has seen the lives of these children change, and he is proud of how far they have come. For him, there’s no turning back.
What Came Next After Secondary School?
After my WAEC, which my dad had to sell his car to pay for, I didn’t get into school for two years. When I wrote JAMB the first time, I missed the cut off mark for studying medicine at the University of Lagos by 1 point. It was the darkest moment of my life. I decided to try again the following year at the Lagos State University (LASU). Unfortunately, that was the year LASU hiked their fees from ₦25,000 to ₦250,000. Of course, my parents didn’t have that money. We tried to run around to raise it but that didn’t work out and I lost the admission.Tunde Onakoya
At that point in my life, I hated everyone and everything. I hated God. I hated my family for being poor. A lot of my friends from secondary school had gone on to continue their education abroad or in private universities but I, who was the senior prefect and had a lot of expectations on me, couldn’t even afford to get into a state university. That’s when it dawned on me how poor my parents were. My dad wasn’t working from 2009 to 2014, so there was no way he could raise my fees.
Meanwhile, my friends would come back from school with stories about the university. It really did a number on me.Tunde Onakoya
Honestly, I played chess obsessively. I ate, slept, talked, and dreamt chess. My clique was all players and we’re all on the college team, so we were always playing against each other. We were arguably the best chess team in Nigeria. (One of us was representing Nigeria at the time, while another went on to be a National Master, the highest-rated player in Nigeria.) I would play chess from morning till night, missing classes and on some occasions, tests. Fortunately, chess gave me a photographic memory and a skill with numbers so I was easily cramming for and passing my exams.
I wasn’t getting any allowance from home — my parents weren’t working, my brother was working in a betting shop — so I survived solely on the winnings I made from chess tournaments. I used to gamble too, betting on chess games with some rich men who would come to Yabatech and gamble over games of chess with us. That was how I survived through school.
I won the National Friends of Chess, the Chevron Chess Open, and was rated 13th in Nigeria. I got money at tournaments and I was able to buy myself a phone for the first time. Yabatech changed my life. Not getting into UNILAG to study medicine was one of the darkest moments of my life, but if that had happened, I would never have been able to do all the stuff I’ve been able to do with chess.
Then I graduated from Yabatech and things started getting weird again.
I couldn’t represent the school in tournaments anymore, so that source of income dried. There were still other chess tournaments but nowhere as many as I used to attend. I went back to Ikorodu. At this time, my parents had moved to Ibadan and it was just my brother and me at home. I didn’t know what to do. Chess wasn’t lucrative enough to pay the bills. I couldn’t afford to go professional because that meant travelling all over the world for competitions. I wanted to get a grandmaster title but that was a pipe dream because you need to spend a lot of dollars for that. So I gave up chess again.
So I started teaching. I went from Ikorodu to Mowe for a ₦6000 salary teaching in a school. Sometimes I’d sleep in Mowe for the week and only go home for the weekend. It was tough. After three months, I decided I couldn’t do that anymore so I quit.Tunde Onakoya
I had a group of friends who were also unemployed. We’d walk around aimlessly. I used to play instruments like drums, guitar, piano, and clarinet which I had learned how to play as a child in church. I’d play at churches and they’d give me some money. That was when I got the idea to become a chess coach. I spoke to a few of my chess friends from Yabatech who were also unemployed.
We made a proposal and sent it to primary and secondary schools, offering to teach the pupils and students chess. Some of them agreed. They weren’t paying much, but it was something. We used to go from Ikorodu to Abule Egba in our suits. There was a day we realized we didn’t have enough transport fare after stopping at a buka to eat. We had to lap each other inside a Keke Napep, with our suits!
I did this from 2016 to 2018. A lot of experiences like that made me realize that maybe chess just wasn’t for me. While I felt fulfilled teaching chess to children, I wasn’t earning enough. So I stopped in 2018 and wanted to take a professional coding course. Then something happened, which became a defining moment for me.
One day after church, the people I played instruments with told me to go with them to a place called Lungu, a slum community in Majidun. It was a run-down area with people smoking everywhere. The men we met were rough men, thugs, and cultists, hardcore guys with scars on their faces who would tell us their stories about their run-ins with the police or how they got shot.
Right there, children were running around, watching their parents smoke. It wasn’t a conducive environment at all. Most of them weren’t in school, hawking to support their parents. I thought that these kids were not growing up in the right environment and would most likely end up like their fathers — thugs, cultists, or dead.
Then I had an epiphany. Why not teach these kids chess? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s when I started researching slum communities and development. I wanted to know how chess could help them. Chess gave me some intellectual grounding and made me think of the world differently. I thought I could give the same to these kids.
So I sought permission from the head of the community who gave us a place where I could teach the children chess in his palace. A few friends and I started teaching chess to the kids. We’d give them food and teach them. We’d take pictures and have so much fun. A lot of them couldn’t speak English but were learning chess at such an incredible pace.
How were you funding this?
It wasn’t easy and I was going broke all the time from buying snacks, transport, and chessboards. Eventually, I couldn’t sustain it anymore. Fortunately, I’d started posting pictures on Twitter and people began to volunteer and eventually contribute. Eventually, it began to gather steam and people started reaching out from all over the world to sponsor some of the children’s education.
I felt so fulfilled. We were featured on CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, DW. Journalists come from all over the world to cover our story not to highlight their poverty but because of the incredible potential, they wield.Tunde Onakoya
What’s happening now?
Now we’re at a place where we’re trying to expand and impact more kids because I believe that chess can change lives in impoverished communities in Africa. Not all of them will become chess champions, but they will learn how to think and their horizons will expand beyond their small communities. They won’t easily be pawns for politicians to disrupt elections for ₦1,500.
We’ve secured deals with international chess organizations like chess.com and ChessKid and also received funding from Venture Garden Group. In three years, we’ve impacted the lives of 300 children, with 30 of them on lifelong scholarships.Tunde Onakoya