Nigerian chess champ lifts the lives of teenagers living under a bridge

In July 2021, Babatunde Onakoya, a renowned chess coach, was driving home when his car suddenly jerked, lost power, and stalled on the Oshodi Bridge, an interchange associated with crime. Frightened and confused, he feared the worst, when some teenagers approached his car.

To his surprise, the youths came to his aid with one, who appeared to be older, saying “Oga, wetin do your moto? (Sir, what happened to your car?)”

Not fully comprehending at first, Onakoya recovered his composure enough to talk to them: “E be like say na my fuel finish (I might need to refuel).”

They volunteered to buy fuel at the nearest filling station. Onakoya handed them some cash and an empty keg. He then asked some of the youngsters what they were doing at Oshodi.

The teenagers told Onakoya that they lived under the bridge, making ends meet by helping people carry loads in the market. 

The others returned and helped him refuel and restart his car. He thanked them and gave them a token for helping him. They hailed him as he drove off. 

On his way home, he wondered how he could help improve their lives. That evening, the idea for the Oshodi Underbridge chess tournament was born. 

Months later, Onakoya returned to Oshodi with members of Chess in Slums Africa. As the founder and convener of the chess organisation, he had hosted similar initiatives in Makoko and Majidun informal settlements. He was keen to replicate the success at Oshodi.

The next step was to identify team leaders and find a place to do the training. He got approval from the leader, Spider, to convene classes at what is known as the Oshodi Underbridge, in a makeshift space beside the railway tracks.

The enthusiasm of the teenagers to learn the game was a revelation for Onakoya and his team of volunteers. Samuel Oluwatoye Awobajo, project manager for Chess In Slums, was happy to witness the process.

“In their hearts, they, like other children, want the best society, but they lack opportunities … when the kids saw how we related with their egbons [leaders], they started developing interest,” Awobajo said.

“With Spider’s help, we got 25 kids ranging from age 10 to 18 for our initial class. We promised to feed them daily, and the numbers grew to 100 in just a few days; we had to call for more volunteers to cope with the numbers.” 

In a video by Chess In Slums, Chameleon, one of the egbons in Oshodi Underbridge, is happy about Onakoya’s initiative. 

“Many young children here are not supposed to be homeless yet you’ll see them hustling for survival,” he said. “We all need help; I’ve been here since I was eight and suffered until I became an adult. I’m skilled in aluminium design and ready to do trading. Many of these teenagers suffer the same fate; I’m glad you [Chess In Slums Africa] are willing to help them now.” 

For months, Onakoya and Awobajo went to Oshodi daily, teaching the budding chess champions mental mathematics and how to play chess. They were joined by several volunteers who brought food and ensured that everything was orderly. Among these volunteers were some of the older residents in Oshodi Underbridge, who were assigned the roles of security guards and guardians.

“This was a way to make them feel included,” Onakoya said. “Days after we assigned them these roles, they became very enthused, setting up the plastic tables and chairs by the railway before we even got there; they loved to be part of something impactful, and I loved it for them too.”

Onakoya said the residents of the Oshodi Underbridge were initially more concerned about getting free meals. But as time went by, they fell in love with the chess game and started convincing their friends to join them. Eventually, the daily attendance grew.

By December 2021, five months after Onakoya’s first encounter with the youth at Oshodi, the Underbridge, once a dreaded spot, had become a place bustling with optimism. It was not only a transformed community but a nursery for Nigeria’s next chess and life champions.

Satisfied that it was time to test the initiative’s success, Onakoya and his team organised the Oshodi Underbridge Chess tournament.

Among the 51 selected to participate was 19-year-old Fawaz Adeoye. He had shown particular keenness and had attended every class since the start of the programme.

Adeoye’s commitment paid off. He emerged the winner of the tournament and walked home with two million naira (about $4 800). This was his biggest day — and it marked a change in his life. He suddenly had money and a skill.

“I’m thrilled about everything. I didn’t like staying under the bridge, but I adapted to the conditions. I was homeless for six months, earning money as a bus conductor. Now I can go to school and establish a fashion business,” Adeoye said.

The runner-up was 18-year-old Morenikeji Olajide, who won 15 000 naira. He chose to use some of the prize money to celebrate with friends.

The only girl in the chess tournament was Tope Alagbala, nicknamed the “Queen of Oshodi” by keen observers of the tournament, who cited the movies Queen of Katwe and The Queen’s Gambit as their inspiration for Alagbala’s nickname. In Queen of Katwe, a chess instructor (David Oyelowo) helps a young woman, Phiona Mutesi (Lupita Nyong’o) escape life in a slum by teaching her chess; in The Queen’s Gambit mini series, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) rises to the top of the chess world.

Although Alagbala didn’t win a prize in the tournament, the chess programme provided her with a new perspective on life and a skill she could build on.

The tournament, which marked the turning point for Onakoya and his team, was also a big day for the Oshodi Underbridge community. The one-day event was publicised on Chess in Slums Africa’s social media pages. 

Chess enthusiasts who had heard of the event on social media chose to watch the games in person and others followed on their devices. After the tournament, the participants, volunteers and guests had time to toast their achievements.

“The day we held our chess tournament, we were all here till 9pm. A DJ played music, we had so much fun; people didn’t want to leave. That is how I knew we would keep coming back until we move them all to new homes,” Awobajo said.

Alongside other Chess In Slums Africa beneficiaries, Adeoye is attending classes to learn how to code, using his skills to develop a website for an online clothing store.

The Chess In Slums Africa started in September 2018 by four friends with 27-year-old Onakoya at its helm. The nonprofit organisation has, in the past four years, expanded its reach. Today, the initiative has more than 25 volunteers across the continent.

By changing the narrative that chess is a game for the elite, Onakoya is giving underprivileged children access to education and amenities.

“The greatest miracle of chess is the pawn becoming a queen. Chess In Slums Africa wants to build an inclusive future for the children who are on the streets,” Onakoya says.

His passion for the game is part of his story. Onakoya, who came from a humble background, was, thanks to chess, able to get a tertiary education. He started playing chess in his pre-teens after learning the game at a barbershop while watching the patrons play.

He became an accomplished chess player, representing his school in various tournaments.

After that, he got a partial scholarship at the Yaba College of Technology (where he studied computer science) by representing the university chess club. Onakoya retired from playing chess professionally after ranking 13th in Nigeria.

“People have compared what we are doing here to the Queen of Katwe. Personally, Phiona Mutesi’s story is inspiring because it shows I’m not crazy. However, our story differs. We’re creating a pipeline to technology, education, and vocation. We’ve created a platform to showcase the potential of these children. Someday there might be a movie about this too,” said Onakoya.

Chess In Slums Africa is sponsoring lifelong scholarships worth more than $400 000 for more than 200 children in formal schools and tech academies in Lagos. It plans to extend that to Burkina Faso and other African countries.

Bukola Benjamin, social media manager for Chess In Slums Africa, says: “We intend to make these teens champions at the game of life, not just chess.”

Awobajo believes the team is growing because of its altruism. “Giving is a bond we share. Tunde and I are childhood friends. We grew up in the same compound. Our parents constantly gave clothes and toys to orphanages.

“Everyone on the team is a giver; we started this NGO with our funds; funds from friends, aunts, and uncles.”Recently awarded The Future Awards for the Community Action category, Onakoya believes “Chess In Slums is the bridge that brings the haves and have-nots together.” — bird story agency

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