OPINION... Onakoya: Playing chess from the slum to world record - Ripples Nigeria
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OPINION… Onakoya: Playing chess from the slum to world record

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Where is the Nigerian opposition?

Tunde Onakoya, the 29-year-old Nigerian Chess Master who has just broken the World Record for the longest chess marathon is most appropriately an embodiment of the Nigerian can-do spirit, the capacity of the average Nigerian to snatch victory from the depths of despair, indeed just when you think it is over, the Nigerian is so resilient, he keeps foraging for faith. Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has praised Onakoya’s audacity. He has been hailed as a worthy ambassador, in whom the spirit of excellence flowers by Vice President Kashim Shettima, former Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo, and Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwoolu. He has done well. He is doing well. Nigerians have every reason to be proud of him. He has demonstrated that the true Nigerians are not those who bemoan their fate and resort to the antics of the lower depths, but those who turn even the smallest of opportunities that come their way into an avenue for glorious achievement with determination and hardwork.

And so it is with Tunde Onakoya, who played chess from Wed, April 17, 2024 till Saturday, April 21 (2. 40 a.m.), to beat the world record of 56 hours, 9 minutes and 37 seconds set in 2018 by two Norwegians – Hallvard Flatebo and Sjur Ferkingstad. Tunde Onakoya teamed up with the American Chess Master, Shawn Martinez, to play chess for 60 hours non-stop. He was unbeaten in more than 170 games. The World Guinness Book of Records organization requires for its purpose two players, playing against each other and others, with short breaks of five minutes for every hour or a longer 30-minute break every six hours. The new record is yet to be officially announced, this may take a few weeks, but Onakoya’s feat was not hidden- it was in the open, at the Times Square in New York, with spectators watching every move on the board of play. History has been made and it has come from the most unlikely place for Nigeria – chess, in a country that often fails to pay attention to other sports. Onakoya himself alluded to this when he said that “it is possible to do great things from a small place.”

Indeed, it is possible for small things and small places to result in significant human experience of great proportions as we have seen in that novel titled “The God of Small Things” (1997) by Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, and the 2008 British movie, “Slumdog Millionaire” set in Mumbai. The idea of the slum as place and metaphor is a strong referent in Nigerian popular imagination more so the fact that great things do happen in small places. It is not the smallness of things that matter but the greatness, the humanity that is embedded in the most unthinkable places. Ajegunle, for example, is a slum neighbourhood in the city of Lagos: it is probably the most popular location for most of the creative outputs in the country, the source of the music of contemporary artistic talents such as Daddy Fresh, Daddy Showkey, Baba Fryo, Oritsefemi, Nico Gravity, Father U-Turn, Don Jazzy, Basket Mouth, KC Presh and the artistry of some of Nigeria’s well-known footballers – Peter Rufai, Taribo West, Samson Siasia, Victor Agali, Emmanuel Amunike, Odion Ighalo. The slum as an incubation hub for talent and innovation is a fascinating subject for further inquiry into the interconnectedness of space, spirit and effort.

Tunde Onakoya, the chess-master, it must be noted, learnt to play chess in a slum in Ikorodu, Lagos State, precisely at a barber’s shop. Now something about the barber’s shop is that it is a very traditional meeting point in communities in parts of Nigeria, very much like the newspaper stands of old which produced “Free Newspaper Readers Associations” across the country. The barber’s shop was an ecosystem for games. While you waited to have your hair cut, or you just happen to show up as a spectator, you were bound to see people playing draught, chess, ludo, card, snake and ladder, or the more local, ayo game. Somewhere in a corner would be a board displaying all the possible hair styles: “Girls Follow Me”; “Rico Bay”, “Gorimapa”, but over the years, the haircut styles became trendier: “Line Up”, “Waves”, “Twisted Curls”, “Afro”. The barber has always been a wise man: he attracts customers and company with games and music. I know one person who shall remain nameless, a veteran of the barber’s shop ayo games of old, who went on to become a Governor and an elder statesman. The same ecosystem has now produced a World Champion in Chess.

The good news about Tunde Onakoya is his kindness and the fact that he never forgot his humble beginnings. He kept playing chess, and ended up as the Number 13 Chess player in Nigeria. As a student at the Yaba College of Technology, he won prizes playing chess. He is also a board member of The Gift of Chess, a non-profit in New York, United States. In 2018, he established a volunteer non-profit group known as Chess in Slums Africa under the auspices of which he trained young persons, mostly from the slums like Makoko in Lagos, and through partnerships, the group promoted chess as an educational tool. By 2021, Chess in Africa Slums had trained over 1,000 children, and organized chess competitions that even produced a 10-year-old-boy with cerebral palsy as a chess champion. One of his students once defeated the acting Canadian High Commissioner to Nigeria, Kevin Tokar in a chess exhibition game. He plans to train over one million children within the next five years. Onakoya has pursued his passion further by seeking to break the extant Guinness World Record for the longest chess marathon, not for personal glory, but to raise US One million dollars for the education of children in Africa, and to build a free chess academy and a STEM innovation lab in Lagos. He may not have immediately achieved the $1million mark, but he has given more popularity to chess, and provided an opportunity for the appreciation of the Nigerian spirit. While the marathon happened, many Nigerians trooped to New York Times Square to cheer him on. The cheer leaders included music stars, Davido and Adekunle Gold, drummers, and Nigerians in Diaspora in general who counted the hours and were inspired by the enthusiasm of being Nigerian, witnessing the possibility of another Nigerian making history. The weather was wintry cold, but it did not matter. During the intervals, the Nigerians played music and danced. It was no longer just chess, but culture, nationalism, art and diasporic fraternity all rolled into one capsule, to create memories and history.

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This trope, for me, was strongly captured in Tunde Onakoya’s post-victory statement on his X handle (@Tunde_OD) when he wrote as follows: “Catching up on social media now and I’ve constantly fought back tears. Love you guys very much. I’ll do a proper post when I find the right words to express all of the emotions I feel right now. Let me delve into this Jollof rice for now. It’s my first meal in almost four days. I had some food poisoning during the marathon so I couldn’t eat anything at all. Just water.” Such endurance. Such patriotism. Onakoya was advised to discontinue the marathon when he developed stomach problems, but he insisted he would see the mission to the end, and he did. He didn’t eat for four days. “Just water.” He refused to quit on the kids. This is the stuff of endurance and determination. And when the goal had been reached and victory secured, his first meal was Jollof Rice. Those who know would proclaim the symbolism of the choice of jollof rice. It is a subtle way of flying the Nigerian flag. Jollof rice is a special delicacy for Nigerians and the argument has not yet been resolved about which country cooks the best jollof rice in West Africa, between Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. Onakoya has projected Nigerian Jollof Rice, as the choice brand by announcing it as his first meal after his victory at a Marathon. May the God of Nigerian Jollof Rice continue to bless him!

But I suppose the more important thing about the euphoria would be the lessons that we can learn from his example. He is a young man of 29, who has never seen what a silver spoon looks like, but with the talent that God has given him, he has tried to help encourage and assist street children and the underprivileged to give them hope. Many Nigerian leaders who have been wielding stolen silver spoons have no vision of doing anything for anybody. It is always about their self-interest, and not public interest and it is the reason there is so much angst and despair in the land, and so much lack of trust between Nigerian leaders and the people. We need leaders, including those who are products of privilege to learn to commit to the common good, not their own ego and insecurities. It is encouraging that Nigerian leaders including the President are full of praise for Tunde Onakoya. It is people like him that should be on the next National Honours List of Nigeria, not the money-miss-road, chieftaincy title crowd. Every year, we miss out most people who are true ambassadors for our nation and give big honours to the most undeserving. President Tinubu must reverse that ugly trend.

Meanwhile, Tunde Onakoya is the latest Nigerian to seek and emerge, pending confirmation, as a Guinness Book World Record holder. The frenzy would seem to have hit the roof when Ms Hilda Effiong Bassey, Hilda Baci for short, won a marathon cooking record with 93 hours and 11 minutes in May 2023. Her record was surpassed later that same year by Irish chef Alan Fisher but her feat ignited a World Record fever in Nigeria, the imprint of which continues to endure. Nigerians love opportunities. When they identify one, or someone points them in a direction, they would rush as if they were competing for gold. Hilda Baci became an instant celebrity: receptions were organized for her by governments and companies, she got plots of land and many gifts, she became an actress, and with her beauty and culinary skills, she became the darling of suitors and men who ogled her pictures. The Madonna University graduate had done everyone so proud that many Nigerians actually wanted to cook too. Less than a month after her victory, one Chef Dammy of Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State entered the kitchen in search of a Guinness World Record that would beat Baci’s record. In Ondo State, there was a Chef Deo who wanted to cook for 150 hours. In Oyo State, there was Chef Adebayo, a 140-hour aspirant. There have been other attempts as well. A computer Science lecturer, Joshua Hassan Bature of the Department of Computer Science, Federal University of Technology, Ado Ekiti reportedly announced a 150-hour teaching marathon.

There was also Alejo Pataki who announced a 200-hour singing marathon. In Ekiti State, one Sugartee proposed a kissing marathon – kiss-a-thon. He ended up not kissing anybody, but Sugartee generated some interest and even got invited to Government House! One Joyce Ijeoma embarked on a body massaging Marathon. She collapsed in the process. In more recent cases, there is Zahan Isaac Kuma (aka Mr. Reliable) who wants to do a marathon Ironing Festival in pursuit of a Guinness World Record (23 – 28 April, 2024) in Abuja at the Jabi Lake Mall, he says – “for the sake of that little child on the street.” When. Mr. Reliable appeared on The Morning Show of Arise News yesterday, I had asked him questions about electricity supply – availability and cost – considering the fact that the Jabi Lake Mall is a Band A location on the electricity spectrum. He sounded upbeat and confident. He said people should bring their clothes for ironing. I pray he does not burn anybody’s cloth, just in case he gets tired or there is a power surge -because that could add a new twist to the story.

What is noteworthy is that the attempts by Nigerians have inspired others across the border in Ghana and also in Cameroon, where one lady said she wanted a sex-a-thon – sex with strong men for 200 hours. Imagine!

Tunde Onakoya sets a different example and represents a far more ennobling engagement. The Nigerian government should through his Times Square outing see that chess has the potential of becoming an important sport in Nigeria and thereby make the necessary effort to promote it in the country. Onakoya was raised in a slum in Ikorodu, now he is in New York, jollofing! The first time he boarded a plane and travelled abroad was only about two years ago. Now his story is on every major news channel in the world, and the front pages of newspapers, all because he started playing chess in one small place on the map called Ikorodu, and turned it into a life-long passion. Truly, “it is possible to do great things from a small place” – an inspiration for every young person out there in search of meaning and purpose. Congratulations, Tunde Onakoya and to everyone who supported him along the way, well done.

AUTHOR: Reuben Abati


Articles published in our Graffiti section are strictly the opinion of the writers and do not represent the views of Ripples Nigeria or its editorial stand.

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