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How I Redefined ‘Area Boy’ As A Kid – Tunde Onakoya

Popular chess master, Tunde Onakoya, said he redefined the word ‘area boy’, believed to be a derogatory term used to refer to a thug or lout.

Speaking at a TEDx Talks event held at the Nile University of Nigeria in 2023, a clip of which went viral on Wednesday, Onakoya said he was also an area boy, and that’s why he is wearing an indigenous cap on a suit.

He said, “I am also an area boy; I mean, for a very long time, the term ‘area boy’ has been known to be a derogatory word that is being used to refer to the thugs, hoodlums and criminals in Lagos. But we’re able to redefine what that meant, and a lot of us became area boys for the sake of some people, and I’ll tell you that story.

“So, some 16 years ago, I was at home, I had just completed my primary school education, and my mom called me and told me that I would have to stop school because they just couldn’t afford tuition anymore, and I had to stay at home so my brother could go to school and that was going to be the end of education for me.

“I wasn’t a very brilliant kid in primary school; I mean, I could not even speak good English at the end of my primary school because the school I went to was a ‘Pako’ one where they taught in Yoruba and we had to sit on the floor. So, I was really struggling, and my teachers would call me ‘olodo’. So it was the easy way out, okay, so no school, so I dropped out of school, and I was at home for two years after my primary school education.”

Onakoya said he was learning how to fix refrigerators as an apprentice, and something happened.

He added, “There was this barbing salon just on the other side of our street, and I would go there to play video games at the end of the day. Then, on one of those days, the barber just brought out a small plastic chess set, and I’d never seen a chessboard before.

“I was a very curious kid, so I asked what this was, and he said it was a chess set. I’d never seen one before, but I was fascinated by the way the pieces were carved, so I told him to teach me because I wanted to learn how to play because I would see him just sit down and talk to himself all right and it would say crazy stuff like well if you play this game you’ll be very intelligent, you’ll be very smart, and I told him to please teach me, and he said no I was too young and he didn’t teach me. So, I was just watching him play with his friends, and with time, because I was a very curious kid, I was able to pick up the rules of the game.

“I learned how to play chess by watching. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I had made the most important decision of my life, but then it became clear that something had happened, and I went back to school; my mom had to make a sacrifice for me, and I returned.

“Fortunately, the secondary school I  attended had chess as a subject, I had never seen that before. We learned chess as a subject and we wrote exams because I think the owner of the school then was the United Nations Ambassador to Kenya and he played competitively when he was younger and that was how I found the gift of chess.

“I kept playing, and I got really good, and my coach discovered that I was a really good, gifted child. I remember my coach telling me that I was gifted, and I believed it. That was the first thing that I learned as a kid who grew up in poverty in the slums of Ikorodu in Lagos. I found an identity, and it wasn’t just any identity; it was an intellectual identity. I began playing professionally, and I was ranked one of the top players in Nigeria, and I finished school in 2015.

“I won a lot of tournaments. I won the Trevor and Chess Challenge, the national friends of chess. I was a really strong player who wanted to become a grand master. I started teaching chess to private schools just like I’d learned, and I’d never thought of it before. But in that period when I thought of teaching chess to children, it made me realize that chess was an important educational resource for children who struggled with their self-esteem and everything else.”

Onakoya added that he thought about using the game to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor kids and decided to take chess boards to the slum to engage the boys believed to be area boys.

“I had challenges with teaching the boys who had never been to school, but believe me, they learnt at an incredible pace. What would take a master a year to learn was learnt by them in a month.

“They beat the other kids from rich schools and won trophies at national and international levels. They even got the toast of notable people to play with them, including the former Manchester United captain, Patrice Evra,” he said.

Onakoya set a new Guinness World Record for the longest marathon chess on Saturday, 20th of April, 2024.

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