The Communal Fates and Faith of a Chess Master

In five years, Chess in Slums Africa brought hope to thousands of children and became a charity phenomenon. But to get there, its founder Tunde Onakoya had to survive terrors: “It’s the kind of things that you see in movies, and you’re, like, ‘This is really bad,’ but then you’re seeing it, the real consequences of poverty.”
Tunde Onakoya at a Chess in Slums exercise.

Tunde Onakoya at a Chess in Slums exercise.

The Communal Fates and Faith of a Chess Master

Afternoons in Oshodi were torrid affairs: pedestrians filled the roads, hawkers competed for sales, and the noise of shouts and honking vehicles and okadas was loud and long and hard and unbreaking. But towards midnight, when the crowds had reduced and the cars had cleared, right after nightfall when the noises became manageable and the residents began to retire to bed, groups of children would stream to the centre of the district, to the flyover they knew as Oshodi Under-bridge, and make their sleep on the hard, dirty concrete.

Most had been abandoned by family. Some of their parents were dead. Most hustled by hawking and went hungry for days. Some had been introduced to crack. All were school dropouts. Exposed before the world, some, girls and boys, were frequently raped by thugs. No one knew what they dreamed of. Few people ever asked. Most people avoided them for fear of theft. And miles away from the lit skyscrapers of Victoria Island and the mansions of Lekki, their entire worlds had not expanded enough for them to grasp the chasm between those luxurious postal codes and their lives here on The Mainland slums.

Oshodi Under-bridge was not the kind of place that made the news for marvelous reasons, and so the morning that Patrice Evra, the famous French footballer and former Manchester United star, arrived there, headlines were ablaze. Behind amber-red shades, surrounded by people, he walked to the bridge. His reason was the non-profit called Chess in Slums Africa. He had seen the videos online, of children playing chess with each other, children that had no homes but had the smarts to think through an elite game. He had seen the photos: the kids holding their trophies in excitement, and, in their small victories, it felt, even for a moment, like the ghosts of their world were banished by their bright grins. Like the millions of people whom those unusual images left a deep impression on, he, too, might have spotted how, in strategizing with king and queen and knight and bishop pieces, the children were rethinking their image of themselves, convinced that if they could do this, then they could be anything. And so he had come in person to support them.

There are 8.6 million homeless children in Nigeria, according to the World Bank, and over 100,000 of them live on the streets of Lagos. Within four years, Chess in Slums had achieved the dream of charities: bring attention to their cause. It was lifting homeless children out of mental rot, equipping them with critical thinking skills, getting many of them back to school on scholarship. As it shared its stories online, thousands of Nigerians sent donations. It had succeeded in creating the sense among people that they, too, could contribute to changing the lives of the children.

Evra was not the first important figure to witness the phenomenon that Chess in Slums had become. Four weeks before, the Canadian High Commissioner Kevin Tokar had visited, along with eight sailors from the Royal Canadian Navy, and lost an exhibition game to a teenage boy. And before them, the NGO caught the attention of Paris Hilton. Now, as the same boy taught Evra how to play, one potential master to a retired one, the crowd watched in elation. Beside them, in a blue blazer and white shirt and Yoruba cap, stood the man who made it all happen, who had looked at the children and seen not society rejects but shining promise, who had convinced them that they were entitled to as big a dream as any other kid elsewhere and then compelled the world to look: the founder of Chess in Slums Africa: Tunde Onakoya.

  • Patrice Evra visits Chess in Slums
  • Patrice Evra visits Chess in Slums (1)

Over the years, in interviews, Onakoya had explained that he is able to do what he does because he lived a life that mirrors those of the children. Born and bred in the slums, he faced the daily battle for food, survival, and dignity. He understood what it meant for the government to not only not care, but to make life difficult for the less privileged. But more than just the children now, there were many more people whose eyes were on him: his mates, his mates’ parents, some of them people who were born or lived in the slums. He had become, for many, proof that one could surmount harsh circumstances.

Recently, he told me, he was a speaker at an event, in the Lagos neighborhood he grew up in, Majidun, and a young man, who grew up two streets away from his, raised his hand to ask a question. The young man, Cosmas, was his parents’ eldest child, as Onakoya is, and a danfo driver, as Onakoya’s father had been, and with his parents in great financial difficulty, his father’s job at stake, pressure was mounting on him, the boy, to resort to Internet fraud, as his friends had. The only reason he hadn’t yet was because he knew about Onakoya. So he came to ask him directly: How were you able to deal with the pressure?

“And I was just — it was such a moment for me, because I used to think that the impact that we have, you know, the impact that we’ve had over this past five years, is truly, truly validated in the lives of the children that we’re advocating for,” Onakoya told me. “And it just dawned on me that that impact truly doesn’t just end, that there are other beneficiaries. And it was just a very humbling moment for me. A lot of the young people that we grew up with, most of them didn’t make it. They never really, you know, got the same opportunity. They became victims of their parents’ poverty.”

On social media, where altruism is held up to scrutiny and almost everyone is studied with suspicion by opposing factions, the 29-year-old’s work appears to be uniformly admired and unreservedly supported. He received The Future Awards Africa Prize for Community Action in 2021 and, after the visits of Evra and the High Commissioner, was named Leadership newspaper’s Social Impact Person of 2022, and this year, for Children’s Day, former Vice President Yemi Osinbajo hosted him and the children.

The charity industry thrives on stories of children surviving a dark history, but Onakoya told me that repeating the same thing had worn him out, and that, after doing a few TEDx Talks, he had declined five more invitations. “But I’ve been thinking,” he added, “what else do I want the world to know? What new insight do I want to share? What are those untold stories that, you know, I’ve never really had to talk about?”

Chess in Slums Africa
There are 8.6 million homeless children in Nigeria, according to the World Bank. Over the years, in interviews, Onakoya had explained that he is able to do what he does with Chess in Slums because he lived a life that mirrors those of the children.

Surviving a dark history takes grit and love. His parents met in Eko Market in Ketu, Lagos. His mother, a bend-down-select cloth seller, had gone to see her friend, and, instead, a spare parts dealer, a young man around her age, saw her and they fell in love. Three years in, she was pregnant. They were young, unmarried, and faced the shame of a baby out of wedlock. She had come to Lagos as a 12-year-old, put to indentured labour, and stuck working almost as a slave until she saved enough to start her own business, and she had no formal education beyond Primary 2. She loved his father, but also understood that she was in no situation to raise a child. She tried abortion. It failed. At five months, her belly was showing, and, hastily, they got married. Onakoya was born.

Things took a worse turn for the new family. The Lagos State government expanded the road and demolished his father’s shop. The man started driving a molue and the government again said it was illegal. The family’s second son had been born by then, and now they lived in a one-room apartment, in a face-me-I-face-you yard, sharing one toilet with 20 neighbours. All they had was a mattress for the children and a mat for the parents. It was a small family against the world.

In primary school, Onakoya and his schoolmates struggled because the teachers couldn’t speak English. After Primary 6, his father told him to stop school and learn something to support the family. He was 10. His brother, eight, was still in Primary 1. It was a painful decision, especially for his mother. Often, she had told them, “Tí ìwo naa bá dàgbà, mo fé ko lè sòró laarin àwon Egbé re”: since she, being uneducated, could not stand among her peers, then her children must grow into adults who could speak amongst their peers; they must not become like her — servants to their peers. Staying home and helping his mother to sell fruits to students, he often snuck away to peek into the classrooms, wishing for the day he would own his own school uniform.

One morning, his mother took him to a nearby college, straight into the principal’s office. There was a vacancy for a cleaner and she wanted the job, but she had a condition: the school must admit her son and, in return, she would work for free. The principal looked at the 12-year-old boy. “What is a noun?” she asked.

The boy couldn’t answer.

The principal turned to the mother: her son didn’t know what a noun was and so shouldn’t be in school; he should be a mechanic apprentice. His mother insisted: she would do anything for the school if it meant them admitting her son. The school took him in.

“It’s interesting that, you know, for children born in difficult places, the odds are stacked up against them from the very beginning, because you don’t even get the right nutrition,” Onakoya told me. “So your cognitive development is sort of warped, and you don’t get the full benefits of what your brain can really do. And then the child struggles through school, and they call that child an olodo or something. And this is one of those quiet consequences of poverty that a lot of people don’t know.”

It was in the two years he spent at home that Onakoya discovered chess, at a barbershop down the street, where he joined other children to play video games. The owner was a man called Bros. B., a respected figure in the neighbourhood who had wise words for everyone, around whom, every day, men gathered to talk. Listening to the men was Onakoya’s first experience of real conversations, and his idea of the world began to expand. One morning, he walked into the barbershop but Bros. B. wasn’t barbing anyone: the man sat in a corner, beside a stack of books, reading one. In front of him was a square set, and on it were shapes, and he moved them one at a time, reading from his book and moving the pieces, talking to himself.

“I was just deeply fascinated by it,” Onakoya recalled. “I mean, it was something I’d never seen before. But seeing him just, like, be so deeply involved in that world, it felt as if he was just removed from all the chatter and the boys just shouting and gambling and all of that. So I just kept staring. It was a new experience for me, just seeing someone be that deeply immersed in learning something.”

Little Onakoya sat next to Bros. B. and asked what he was doing. “Chess,” Bros. B. said.

“What is this one?” he asked.

“Pawn.”

“Oh, this one looks like a donkey.”

The other children, now gathered, laughed.

“No oh, it’s a knight.”

He watched.

“Bros. B., teach me na.”

“No, no, you’re too young.”

Chess was for intelligent people, Bros. B. told him; if you played chess, it helped you become a thinker. “I’m going to chop the pawn,” Bros. B. said, and moved his piece and collected the pawn: “chop.”

Onakoya smiled remembering this. “I always called it chop until much later in my career when I knew that it was capture.” But that moment meant more than just discovering a passion; it was also a discovery of purpose. “I guess Bros B. was my first real experience of what it meant to be like a thinker and intellectual. And chess was going to make me think, and being a thinker gives you an identity, an intellectual identity. And I wanted to be that person, because my parents always hammered that into our heads, that the only way, the only shot that we had, to escape poverty was me getting an education. So it helped me understand that I could also be intellectually inclined, that I wasn’t just an olodo because I couldn’t speak English.”

By the time he resumed school, he was reading Bros. B.’s stack of chess books, and, at school, he was playing, representing them as part of his trade-off scholarship. Suddenly surrounded by middle class kids, whose parents were architects and doctors, and who were often mean, he became ashamed of his lack, felt he didn’t belong, and lied that his cleaner mother wasn’t his mother but an aunt.

He was gifted, he knew, but also only as valuable as he could work, and he knew that he had to work extra hard to earn half the value ascribed to other kids. Chess became even more: hope. Whenever people learned he played chess, they treated him differently, better, which helped his low self-esteem.

“It became my North Star,” he said. “It became the one thing that I could put all efforts into, and if I could excel at this thing, it was going to set me apart. It was entirely up to me to take my parents out of poverty, to, like, break that cycle. A fear of failure. That was what really pushed me harder than anything else.”

He found that he could draw, and play the piano at church, but when he started to write, after ransacking the house to find church pamphlets, his mother shred his writing papers: her son would not waste his time doing anything other than reading his school books. He began reading a dictionary and novels, and his confidence grew enough for him to join the debate team. He wanted to be in the arts class, which he knew his parents wouldn’t like, but after he and his classmates read Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands, they decided to become doctors and he switched to the sciences, even though he hated Chemistry and Mathematics. His fears grew but he surged on. In class, he was always first or second, but in SSS2, he came fourth. Panicked, he changed his result to second. Teachers called him to the staff room, and he started crying, begging them not to tell his father. It wasn’t that his father would beat him; it was that he couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in his eyes; it was that his younger brother had to drop out in SSS1 just to save money for him to finish school.

“You know, we had all these really heavy conversations,” Onakoya said of his father, “and it’s not what you should be telling a child. It was the kind of pressure around me at the time, the kinds of expectations that everyone had for me. If I fail, then all the sacrifices that my parents have made, all of this would be in vain. And I would never be able to live, in fact.”

His father sold his taxi, bought on loan, to pay for his son’s WAEC and JAMB exams. His son would be the first in the family to attend university. His son was going to study medicine, become a doctor, a respected person in society.

Fate lowered those hopes. He scored less than required for his choice schools, the University of Lagos and Lagos State University, but former classmates with similar scores used family connections and got in. “I didn’t have anyone, we didn’t know anyone,” he told me. “And that was when it truly dawned on me that I had to accept my reality. It really broke me, and at that time I hated God, I hated my parents for being poor, I hated myself, contemplated suicide.”

He taught at a primary school, earning N3,000, until his mother brought a form for Yaba Polytechnic, and he got into Computer Science. He would graduate without owning a laptop.

“I was living like a loser in Yaba Tech,” he said. “We would always sleep on the floor in front of the chess room; the hostels at the time were under renovation. I never even went to school with provisions, food, or allowance, or anything. I had two or three clothes. I only went home maybe twice, because there was nothing to go back to. Nothing to look forward to. And the family had, kind of, scattered at that point.”

With his brother’s appendix ruptured and having gulped all the family savings, his father retreated to his village to work in a bakery with his sister, his mother to Festac to clean houses with her own sister, and his brother to Ijebu, Onakoya was just there, just alive.

He had given up on chess when he met the four friends he now credits with resurrecting his passion: Daniel Anwuli, Jimmy Ogunlana, Abiola Akinseye, and Julius Nwachukwu. At Yaba Tech Sports Complex, they encouraged him into playing against national players, losing and learning hard lessons. The rich men who played with them sometimes gave them money. Other times, they gambled: If I win, you will give me N50. Just to gather money to feed. Their friendship changed his life.

“This was me coming from Ikorodu with very little exposure, right?” he explained. “I’d never really been outside Ikorodu since we moved, you know. And these were guys that were highly intelligent, guys that loved chess as much as I did. I felt safe sharing my time, my obsessions, my interests with them, and they taught me a lot. So I began to see life; it just expanded my scope of what was possible in life, of, like, being a man.”

He and his friends started representing the school, winning poker games and gold medals and becoming, in his estimation, probably the strongest university team in West Africa. Anwuli became Nigeria’s youngest international master and Akinseye a FIDE master. They would trek from Yaba to Surulere for the chess tournament at the stadium. When Onakoya won his first cash prize of N11,000, the most money he had ever seen, he bought suya of N1,000 and his first mobile phone. Wow! he thought. This money, all of this money from chess? My own effort?

Within two years of competing, he had won the National Friends of Chess Tournament and the Chevron Chess Contest, and the International Chess Federation ranked him at No. 13 in Nigeria, and, at age 20, he received the title of National Master.

Chess in Slums Africa
Chess “became my North Star,” Onakoya said. “It became the one thing that I could put all efforts into, and if I could excel at this thing, it was going to set me apart. A fear of failure. That was what really pushed me harder than anything else.”

Onakoya told me that he played chess obsessively because it was his only escape from the reality of his family and life. With only three tournaments held annually at the time, chess was not a sustainable means of income, and so teaching it became an alternative. He joined a friend who taught in schools on The Island, Abule Egba, and Yaba. Sometimes they played church instruments and, with more friends, walked to the bus stop to smoke. Most times, he just followed them to listen to their stories: they were area boys, rough young men with machete cuts from their time causing chaos on the streets. He was not a smoker but he followed them for their stories. Whenever his friends came to smoke, neighbourhood kids gathered and smoked with them.

“It used to bother me because I knew that, for a lot of them, they’d been enshrouded by — they’d become victims of their parents’ poverty,” he said of the kids. “They were just acting up the script that life made available to them. It wasn’t really — they didn’t have options. I constantly thought of that because that was me as well.”

So the next time he came there, he came with a chess board. He asked one of the hard guys to quell the rebellious children. They were looking forward to food or money, not Good Advice. Everything changed the moment he set up the chess board. He watched the quiet faces of the children, the spark in their eyes.

“It was love at first sight, the same way I saw the pieces the first time.” His voice was emotional. “I guess it has this — it feels like magic. It has this way of enchanting one, like, when you see it, it, it kind of pushes you to search for answers immediately. Like, why does this look like this, right? What does this do? So it instigates that curiosity. It just — they were investigating what this could be, because they’d never seen it before.”

To each of the children, he gave a piece to look at. “What does this look like?” he asked one.

“Kétékété,” the boy replied in Yoruba. Donkey.

Onakoya was filled with emotion; the first time he saw a knight, he, too, had called it donkey.

Another child said, still in Yoruba, horse.

The children could not speak English; most had never been to school. How would he communicate the concepts of a complex game? How would he explain that only the rook moves vertically and horizontally, make them understand terminology like en passant? Even if they grasped the basics, could they understand deep strategies, tactics, prophylaxis?

“I can tell you that, in just one day, not only were these kids able to learn the board coordinates, they were able to learn the rules of the game and some opening theory, and we did it by teaching them in their own language,” Onakoya told me. “And I think that’s one thing that’s wrong with our educational system, because when a child is not learning the way you’re teaching them, you have to only teach them in the way that they can learn.”

At the end of the class, he and his friends bought Gala and pure water for the children. Nearby, a DJ blasted music and they danced. One of his friends had a camera and captured the moments.

That night, his heart was full. A miracle had happened and he couldn’t believe it. After much thinking and procrastination, it had happened, and the children had shown their capacity to become thinkers, just like him all those years ago; they had shown that the only difference between them and privileged children was a gap in opportunities. And chess, he decided, would be that bridge. For the first time, the world would think of them not as illiterate children from the slums but also as children with the capacity for dreams. He was in these thoughts when Michael Ossai, the photographer, sent him a link to the unedited pictures.

“I just looked at them, and one of the pictures that struck me was a little girl holding a queen piece,” he said. “I put it on my WhatsApp DP. I couldn’t stop staring at it. I just kept looking. I slept really late. And I thought to myself that I had to go back and find this girl because I didn’t pick her name that first day, and that was when I knew that there was something here, and we could tell a new story.”

The image of little Basirat holding the queen piece, a sparkle in her eyes, got significant engagement on Twitter, and as Nigerians offered to donate to her and the other children in the photos, Onakoya decided to launch a charity: Chess in Slums Africa. It was 2018 and he was 23.

  • Chess in Slums Africa (5)
  • Chess in Slums Africa (5)

Part of why Onakoya takes the children of Chess in Slums Africa as seriously as he takes his own life is because he has accumulated an expectation of disappointment, from family, friends, peers, and strangers, and he does not want the children to see him as another person in their lives who promises and fails. Especially when the promises he has made — that playing a game will lift them out of poverty — are big ones, and he made them without the children asking.

Sometimes, the children asked for money and scribbled what they wanted on tiny pieces of paper: Uncle Tunde, I dont have school bag. Uncle Tunde, weve not eaten since yesterday. It broke him, because not only could he not help them, he also wasn’t that example of success that he told them that chess would make them. If chess could change lives, why was his unchanged?

He took photos of their scribblings and posted them on Facebook, and commenters offered to buy the items. “You can imagine the joy that I had the next weekend that I was going there with those items for those kids,” he said. “You know, it was just pure joy that I could meet those needs.”

Chess is not the end, Onakoya frequently reminds the children, but a means to several ends, a gateway to other opportunities, one of which is education. Playing chess trains their minds to be receptive to learning, and winning prizes shows them that there is reward for learning, which spurs them to develop ambition.

“When you promise a child something, they don’t forget it,” he said. “And when you do it for them, they will always remember. It is important that we keep these promises because, someday, they would be in a position in society — a leadership position, a political position even — where they have a responsibility to people that they serve and they’d remember that, because somebody kept his promises to them at that point in their lives, it is their own duty to keep their promises to others. So that’s where it truly comes full cycle.”

The organisation’s work spread from slums in Lagos — Majidun, Ikorodu, Makoko — and Ibadan in the southwest to Cross River State in the south-south, where the whole team lived on the mountains with their host community.

“For Makoko, I’d only ever been there once,” he said. “The only thing I had seen about it was online, the ‘Venus of Africa,’ yidi yada. I wanted to understand what life was like in Makoko. And there was no other way I could think of than to actually live with the people, to really understand their intimate struggles, because I wanted to tell a new story of these children, right? What does it mean to live on black water? What does it mean to live on sewage? Makoko fits into every poverty porn narrative that NGOs and international organizations use to score pity points and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted us to really change something in that community, not in a way that demeans them but in a way that dignifies them.”

  • Chess in Slums Africa (3)
  • Chess in Slums Africa (4)
  • Chess in Slums Africa (3)

Commitment to Chess in Slums Africa meant that Onakoya stopped competing, and his ranking dropped to No. 30, and yet that was the least of his problems: everywhere else, it was upheaval. He’d lived with his aunt since finishing from YabaTech, sleeping on a dusty mattress in her store, but, in early 2020, she traveled to Canada, leaving him back on the streets. He and his friend Daniel Anwuli moved to Port Harcourt, where the latter’s chess sponsor lived, and lived off Anwuli’s earnings as the country’s No. 1 ranked player. The plan was for Onakoya to find his footing and return to Lagos. Then came the pandemic, and he sank back to square one, got into gambling, sports betting.

“I was just trying to raise money for my rent,” he told me. “You know, I would always get messages and calls from the children and it was just really hard. I was just away from what I loved. People thought that I’d gone to a different place and I was maybe doing okay, but I was still suffering, struggling there.”

Thomas Oparaugo, Nigeria’s first international chess master, was investing in top junior players in the country, and Onakoya worked for him, installing chess software on laptops, and, to thank him, the man bought him his first laptop. He began teaching virtual classes. The timing was right. The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix series about a chess prodigy, had just come out and interest in the sport grew, and, suddenly, Onakoya had students in China and the US, and began earning in Dollars.

His fate bettered overnight, he traveled to Ibadan to see his parents, and then for the first time got his own place, a two-bedroom apartment in Lagos, in Majidun, close to the children he taught. It took him a year to afford furniture, and he converted his living room to a learning center. Friends donated 10 i-Pads and the children learned coding from YouTube videos. As friends and volunteers came by, the small, chair-less, curtain-less, TV-less apartment became a camp of almost 20 residents. Until, in September of 2021, he moved.

In many ways, Onakoya is an outlier, but he also sees the curious nature of his choices: Why would a 23-year-old, living in poverty, go out of his way to create a charity for children in poverty when he could have invested that energy to better his own circumstances? His friends were getting into crypto, into tech, looking to japa, and here he was, starting an NGO without knowing how NGOs worked. How was he pushing other people out of the water when he himself was drowning?

“It didn’t really make a lot of sense,” he allowed. “I asked myself, okay, fine, if this becomes successful, what does that look like? Is it that you become rich? No, you won’t become rich, because what you’re doing is charity. Children cannot pay you for it. I needed to redefine for myself what success could mean. And at the time, I was planning to japa, right? I got a job as a chess coach, in the UK, and I was trying to, like, process my papers and everything. And, you know, this is where it really comes back to my health condition.”

This is something that Onakoya had never discussed in detail.

He was only nine months old when he had measles and, his parents unable to afford hospital bills, brought in a local nurse who gave him the wrong injection. It triggered osteoarthritis: the blood supply to his hip joint dried up. Within weeks, a once active child, running and jumping all over the place, stopped walking and only sat on the floor. Physiotherapy restored his walk but at the cost of great physical pain. The health baggage meant he couldn’t do a lot of vigorous activity, so finding chess was, for him, something that transcended even his physical limitations. Yet every day of his life, from childhood to adulthood, even as he weathered the storms of hunger and hustle, he lived in pain. It was only as an adult that he found out the name of the illness: intravascular necrosis: death of blood-to-bone tissue.

“I knew that meant, you know, in a couple of years, I would start having problems with scoliosis, arthritis, and all of that,” he told me. “I mean, I already had problems with, like, pain, every day, every night. There were days when it was, like, deeply, deeply intense. Chronic, so painful that it’s just crippling. The kind of pain that doesn’t go away. I think it just became clearer that I didn’t have a lot of years to be strong. And, you know, if I just struggled and did all these things, I would spend, like, the next ten years just trying to put things together and then, you know, this was the chance for me to do something that was truly meaningful in my life. Like, if you had ten years to live, someone told you that you had ten years to truly live, what do you want to do with it? How do I really make it count, like, how do I truly, truly live, you know? And I was convinced that it was what God wanted me to do. And I just went with faith.”

This ailment, more than his struggles to feed, became the defining challenge of his life. It, and his failure to gain admission, made him suicidal. “For the longest time, having necrosis wasn’t even the worse part,” he said. “The worse part of it was, I had, like, an imbalance in my legs. So this right leg didn’t grow like the other one, so I had this limp. I think that the discrepancy is about five cm. It was something that I was so deeply ashamed of. But then, you know how you’re a fine boy, but then when you walk, and they’re, like, ‘Ah, see this fine boy o.’ For some people, it’s not too noticeable, but then if you really looked, you would see that there’s something so funny in the way that I walk. And that was something that I was deeply ashamed of. In fact, there were times that I just wished that God could just give me like a week where I could just walk normally, like everyone else, and not have to limp with so much pain. That was why, when we started Chess in Slums, I stayed away from the limelight for the first three years. I didn’t want to do any interviews or anything. Because when that happens, then you have to show up at events, and you get people asking you stupid questions, you know. God has been kind to me. Like I said, all of these still just speak to increasing my capacity to feel.”

In the weeks before we spoke, Onakoya underwent a complete hip-replacement surgery: they cut out the hip sockets and replaced them with metal ones that would last for the next 20 years. For the first time in his life, the pain was gone, and now he was learning to walk again, with crutches, a process that might take, he said, from three months to one year.

Because he is spiritual and speaks in terms of Divine plans, I asked him if he forgave the nurse who gave him the wrong injection. “I don’t think she knows what she did,” he replied. “And it was easy for me to forgive. I think, bearing that burden of hate towards her is going to do me more harm than good. Without this, I don’t think that I would’ve ever travelled this path.”

“You mean, without the illness?” I asked. “Or the struggle to escape poverty?”  

“Both,” he said. “The pain of illness and the pain of background, where I come from. This is what makes my story a beautiful one to tell. And this is why I have the capacity to help other people, because my pain is greater than theirs, so it has really increased my capacity for empathy. Empathy is a gift, trust me. A lot of people are incapable of it, not because they don’t know to be kind or to think about others — they just wouldn’t know how to. And, I guess, because my surgery had complications, and we were there for six hours, I was thinking about how maybe God just thinks that I’m one of his strongest soldiers, because, you know, why do I have to go through all of these, like, why did I have to bear all of these alone? And I thought about how the world, humanity, has gotten its best leverage from people that did these great things, but then they always had this burden, this pain, this health issue, this story that prepared them for that idea, to be able to deliver that idea to the world. So it felt like a rite of passage to doing anything truly phenomenal in the world. I’ve come to embrace it as part of my story. That is why I am very excited about what I would do with this new strength, with this new hip, this new implant, this titanium hip. I’ve come to embrace my life because it’s different from anyone else’s. I’ve stopped blaming my background for anything.”

But he wished more people understood this about poverty: “It’s so damaging psychologically. Poor people think that hospitals are not meant for them, so they don’t even bother going, whether they can afford it or not. It’s a luxury for the rich people.”

Queen of Katwe — the film about Phiona Mutesi, the chess prodigy from a Ugandan slum— was the closest he had to a template. “How do you even, like — why should the world care about you teaching chess to children in the slums? How does it put food on the table? You know, what is priority for children in the slums is food. They are hungry. Is it chess they would eat? Would their parents even allow you teach them? Their parents would rather have the kids doing menial jobs to support the family.”

With no money but with the fear that his chronically painful illness left him limited time, what kept him going, what consoled him, was the thought of the children, the impact of his work connecting them back to society. He could not afford to have his own struggle be a hindrance.

“The world is completely disconnected from the realities of people that live in those places,” he said. “And you can’t really blame anyone because we’re shielded by our own privileges, so it’s hard to really identify with the struggle of a child in the slum because you never felt that pain before.”

One morning, 3 a.m., he received a phone call from an American number. The caller was a Nigerian man who had lived all his life in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalist New York, and made multi-millions off it, but now, speaking to Onakoya, he was crying. He had seen the videos and what Chess in Slums was doing made him feel so small, like he had wasted his life. Here was a 28-year-old doing something. Onakoya had done something for him, the man told him: he had made him see that he had the ability to live again.

“Most people just always want to help from afar because when you really get to these places, and you see the trauma of it, it breaks one’s spirit,” he told me. “It’s the kind of things that you probably see in movies, and you’re, like, ‘This is really bad.’ But then you’re seeing it, the actual reality, the real consequences of poverty for the everyday person.”

Chess in Slums has taken its work from slums in Lagos to Ibadan and Cross River State. “I wanted us to really change something in [the communities],” Onakoya said, “not in a way that demeans them but in a way that dignifies them.”

The 17-year-old boy who taught Patrice Evra chess at Oshodi Under-bridge is Jamiu Onakoya, the oldest of six children that Tunde Onakoya met in the slums and adopted. It is another side of his life that he had never discussed in detail in public, until now. Jamiu and his 15-year-old brother Ayomide — both dropped out of school, Jamiu a mechanic apprentice — had attended the first Chess in Slums exercise in Oshodi, back in 2018, and afterwards dragged Uncle Tunde to meet their mother. They did not know their father. Their mother’s leg was amputated: she’d gone to scavenge plastic and a trailer ran into the nearby crowd, killing people; the vehicle trapped her leg and it had to be cut out from under the debris. Now she begged for alms. Emotionally drained, Onakoya tried to not be involved in the personal lives of the children. This was poverty in its starkest form, and, even as it weighed heavily on him, he had realised that he couldn’t save everyone.

Then, in 2019, he got a call: Jamiu’s mother was sick. He took her to a hospital, where they found that she had malaria and HIV, from the blood transfusion she received when she lost her leg. The children tested negative. They had no one so he filled in his name as next-of-kin.

“I just carried her, and she was just crying,” he said. “She whispered in my ear that, ‘Tunde, please, if anything happens to me, please take care of my children,’ and me, I was, like, ‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you, we’ll get fine treatment for you, as long as you live a healthy life.’”

With counseling and antiretroviral drugs, he took them home, bought fruits. Weeks later, he got another call: she was dragging herself across the streets at night, saying she wanted to go home, to Ekiti, that that was where they could treat her. She did. That September, she died.

Onakoya blamed himself for letting her go to Ekiti. She’d asked him to look after her children and he, still squatting in his aunt’s store, had no way to. An uncle showed up but couldn’t take the children in. Onakoya felt that letting the children go to their village would waste their potential, and leaving them on the streets was no option. He sent them to stay with a friend and Chess in Slums volunteer, Shedrach Osuala, and sent money for their upkeep. In 2020, they moved in with him and he adopted them. They called him Dad but he told them to call him Uncle Tunde.

Canadian High Commissioner visits Chess in Slums at Oshodi
Jamiu Onakoya, the 17-year-old boy who taught Patrice Evra chess at Oshodi Under-bridge, here with the Canadian High Commissioner Kevin Tokar, whom he beat in a game.

“We can learn to love anyone when you know their story,” he told me. “I think if we really open our minds, open ourselves again to feel, to share in other people’s burden, then we’re going to change the world. Because that is what really changes the world. If I’d disconnected myself and just focused on the chess, Chess in Slums would’ve still done what it needed to do, impact the lives of the kids, help them build their cognitive abilities, but it wouldn’t have become this inspiring story that is giving the world something new to believe in. That’s hope. We’re giving hope in a way that people feel it enough to want to also find their place in it.”

He began talking about how much progress the children, his children, have made, and, although his voice remained clear and steady, his eyes, trained downwards, betrayed the swell of emotion. “Like, this chess talent that I had, I could give it to them as a gift, it becomes their own gift for life. It is for them to become better than me, and that is why I am dedicating my life to teaching them. For them to see that there is a bigger world out there waiting for them.”

After teaching Patrice Evra, Jamiu Onakoya was a speaker at a United Nations and Babcock University Conference. A ranked chess player, he is now in university, studying Business Administration. When he won an award recently, he called Onakoya what the man told him and his siblings not to call him.

Jamiu texted Onakoya:

Thanks, Dad. ♦

If you love what you just read, please consider making a PayPal donation to enable us to publish more like it.

No One Covers Nollywood, African Literature, & Culture Like Open Country Mag

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Is in a Different Place Now

— How Teju Cole Opened a New Path in African Literature

— The Epic, Transformative Comeback of Chidi Mokeme

— Rita Dominic‘s Visions of Character

The Next Generation of African Literature

— The Methods of Damon Galgut

— Maaza Mengiste Is Reframing Ethiopian History

— How Tsitsi Dangarembga, with Her Trilogy of Zimbabwe, Overcame

— Chude Jideonwo on His SARS Victims Documentary Awaiting Trial

— The Making of Mami Wata, Nigeria’s First Film to Premiere at Sundance

— How Dakore Egbuson and Tony Okungbowa Traverse Trauma in YE!

— Writing Omo Ghetto: The Saga, Nollywood’s Highest Grossing Film of All-Time

— Country Love Depicts Tenderness in LGBTQ Lives

...

There are 8.6 million homeless children in Nigeria, according to the World Bank, and over 100,000 of them live on the streets of Lagos. Within four years, Chess in Slums had achieved the dream of charities: bring attention to their cause.

...

“But I’ve been thinking,” he added, “what else do I want the world to know? What new insight do I want to share? What are those untold stories that, you know, I’ve never really had to talk about?”

...

“It’s interesting that, you know, for children born in difficult places, the odds are stacked up against them from the very beginning, because you don’t even get the right nutrition,” Onakoya told me.

...

“I was living like a loser in Yaba Tech,” he said. “I never even went to school with provisions. I had two or three clothes. I only went home maybe twice, because there was nothing to go back to.”

...

When Onakoya won his first cash prize of N11,000, the most money he had ever seen, he bought suya of N1,000 and his first mobile phone. Wow! he thought. This money, all of this money from chess? My own effort?

...

Onakoya: “When a child is not learning the way you’re teaching them, you have to only teach them in the way that they can learn.”

...

“I just looked at them, and one of the pictures that struck me was a little girl holding a queen piece,” he said. “That was when I knew that there was something here, and we could tell a new story.”

...

“When you promise a child something, they don’t forget it,” he said. “It is important that we keep these promises because, someday, they would be in a position in society and they’d remember that it is their own duty to keep their promises to others. So that’s where it truly comes full cycle.”

...

“It didn’t really make a lot of sense,” he allowed. “I asked myself, okay, fine, if this becomes successful, what does that look like? Is it that you become rich? No, you won’t become rich, because what you’re doing is charity.”

...

But he wished more people understood this about poverty: “It’s so damaging psychologically. Poor people think that hospitals are not meant for them, so they don’t even bother going.”

...

“The world is completely disconnected from the realities of people that live in those places,” he said. “We’re shielded by our own privileges, so it’s hard to really identify with the struggle of a child in the slum because you never felt that pain before.”

...

“We can learn to love anyone when you know their story,” he told me. 

...

“I think if we really open our minds, open ourselves again to feel, to share in other people’s burden, then we’re going to change the world,” he said. “We’re giving hope in a way that people feel it enough to want to also find their place in it.”

...

“We’re shielded by our own privileges,” he said, “so it’s hard to really identify with the struggle of a child in the slum because you never felt that pain before.”

Otosirieze for Open Country Mag

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommendation

Editors Daniel Orubo and OluTimehin Kukoyi, and contributors Olakunle Ologunro, Innocent Ilo, Edwin Okolo, Fareeda Abdulkareem, and Ani Kayode, on the freedoms and radicality of fictionalizing happiness for LGBTQ+ Nigerians.
As war rages in Sudan, we turn to one of its major artists, a pioneering figure in the 2000s resurgence in African literature.
In their debut novel-in-stories Vagabonds!, the Nigerian writer and visual artist pursues an alternate reality of their mind, taking on, among other subjects, social normalcy, gender, and queerness.

“An ambitious new magazine that is committed to African literature"

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Get the essential stories in African literature + Nigerian film and TV: in-depth, thought-provoking Profiles, features, reviews, and conversations, as well as news on events and opportunities.

We respect your privacy and will never send you Spam or sell your email.

Search

Top