Tunde Onakoya: Doing Great things from a small place, By Simbo Olorunfemi

It’s been only a while ago since Tunde Onakoya, sitting in the heart of Times Square, New York City, playing the game of Chess with his partner, Shawn Martinez, on a stretch of 60 hours, set a new Guinness World Record for the longest Chess Marathon in history. It was a victory for endurance and resilience, a triumph of mind over nature for the duo.

Tunde had set a target of 58 hours for this bid, intending to surpass the current record of 56 hours, 9 minutes, and 37 seconds achieved by Hallvard Haug Flatebo and Shut Ferkingstad in Norway in November 2018. Having officially started on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, (10 a.m. New York time), the objective was to conclude this mission on Friday, April 19, 2024, (8:00 p.m. New York time). Having done that, he decided to push on for the 60-hour mark, which he reached at (12.40 a.m. New York time) on Saturday, April 20, 2024. The Guinness World Record has yet to make a statement on the feat by the duo, but the organisation often does take some time before confirming any new record.

Alongside him on this mission was the American Shawn Martinez, who is a National Master, just like Tunde is. Shawn is said to be a New York City chess legend and chess coach. He is the Coach to Tani Adewumi, the young Nigerian boy in the US who won the New York State K-3 Championship at only eight years old and last year became a national master (NM) at the age of 10.

Tunde and Shawn had to do this as a team because the requirement is that the record attempt must be by a team of 2 players, and these same players must play against each other for the same duration, without interruption, except for the allowed periods for break.

The purpose of the Guinness World Record attempt by Tunde is to raise $1,000,000 to empower more children across Africa through the works being done through ‘The Gift of Chess’ founded by American Chess Coach Russell Makorsky and ‘Chess in Slums Africa’ which Tunde founded in 2018 to “donate one million chess sets globally, using chess as a simple tool to expand opportunities & connect us across society.”

46 hours into the chess marathon, Tunde and Shawn had played 170 games between them. At 9.30 p.m. Nigerian time on Saturday, April 20, 2024, the mission had raised over $111,000 on the ‘The Gift of Chess’ platform. That excludes what might have been raised elsewhere. Of course, it is a far cry from the $1,000,000 target, but it is still a hefty chest for the organisation to help it further achieve its objectives. Beyond that is how they have managed to capture the imagination of the world. Major international media houses have picked up on the story, with Nigeria receiving a positive mention, courtesy of Tunde Onakoya.

It is incredible what Tunde has been able to achieve. Not just in sitting at New York Times Square for 60 hours to set a new record, but what he has done over the years with the Chess in Slums Africa (CISA) project, taking something as little as the game of chess, and turning it into a hugely useful weapon with which he has touched and changed the lives of hundreds of young kids, some born into circumstances that summarily held them bound to a life chained down by poverty in the slum of Makoko slum and others forced onto the streets, condemned to life ‘under the bridge’ at Osodi in Lagos, before Tunde’s intervention.

You look at Tunde and wonder at the source of strength and courage for this 29-year-old man with such a slight frame. Take the bid for the record, whereas all it requires is uninterrupted play with the opponent, win or lose over the period, but Tunde has set out with the desire not to lose any game over the 58 hours. Like many others, I have followed Tunde’s journey from the distance for a while, since his Makoko project became public. What I find most striking about him is his unmistakable  ‘can-do’ spirit. He never appears fazed by the circumstances, no matter how daunting they might be. There is a way the fire usually lights up in his eyes while talking about his dreams, that you can’t but be inspired.

Then, the swiftness with which he shakes off one accomplishment, moving on to another project the next moment. Three months back, it was about his feat in Germany, playing a simultaneous chess match against 10 players and winning all 10 games after almost 2 hours of battle. He wouldn’t let that sink in before embarking on this record-setting bid. Tunde is, no doubt, a remarkable man, focused and driven, with a heart panting to make an impact and touch lives irrespective of the odds. How he got on the Osodi under-bridge project speaks to the state of his mind. He had won accolades for his work with the children in the slum of Makoko. Through him, we had gotten to know about Ferdinand, the miracle child, the prodigy with cerebral palsy. But his heart was still very much on how to scale on impact.

Like many other Lagosians, Tunde had cause to drive through Osodi in Lagos, sometime in July 2021. Here are his thoughts, as put up on X (Twitter) on July 5, 2021:

“Drove past oshodi underbridge a couple of days ago and saw a couple of teenage boys with heavily scarred faces, smoking Indian hemp- We all know that story.

Beyond that, I couldn’t help but picture them in a three piece suit playing chess.

Next project maybe?

…There are obvious security risks involved in taking on a project like this, but I’m more concerned about hearing their own side of the story and teaching them chess as a way to help them find a more positive avenue to express themselves.

…It’s easy to judge them by their choices without taking into cognisance the quality of options they had.

This is why it is still important to humanize “Societal villains “, because given a much different circumstance, anyone of us could have ended up in the same exact situation.

…Will probably need to partner with another organization that is more Juvenile focused and can help get them off the streets and engage them with Vocational skills to enable them earn a proper living.

…These are just random thoughts by the way, and it’s not something we can do anytime soon as we’re still a bit overstretched by the Makoko project. But the more I think about it, the more I really want to do this.

Difficult, but possible.”

Difficult, but possible, he said. Tunde soon set out with a plan of action. By September, work started with his first visit, out to earn the trust of the boys on the street. By December of that year, he had made enough progress that he now had 51 homeless kids who had become a part of the family. Through him, we got to meet Fawaz, the 18-year-old, who emerged as Champion in one of the competitions. Only recently, there was good news about Ayomide, one of the boys, who until 2022 was just another one of the homeless street kids under the Osodi bridge, working as a Bus conductor. Ayomide is today a Front-end Developer in another part of the world.

Such is the impact Tunde Onakoya has made with the project that when Patrice Evra, the French Football player visited Nigeria 2 years back, he was at Osodi underbridge to play chess with the kids. It is remarkable to see how Tunde had succeeded, with his intervention, in turning Osodi underbridge, a “no-go area’’  for not a few Lagosians into a strong enough attraction for foreign VIPs to visit.

“It is possible to do great things from a small place”, Tunde Onakoya says. He has mastered the art of doing great things from a small place. He has put Nigeria on the world map in a positive way. It did feel good to hear Nigerian music on a marathon at Times Square as the marathon run of games between the two went on and on. It is great to see the level of support that has come his way from around the world, with words of encouragement coming from President Bola Tinubu, VP Kashim Shettima, Lagos Governor Babjide Sanwoolu, and the immediate past Vice President, Prof Yemi Osibanjo, who has always been his cheerleader. Davido and  Adekunle Gold visited him to offer support. It was good to see Nigerians in America rallying support for Tunde, with Jollof rice and Nigerian music thoughtfully coming into the picture at Times Square.

The story of Tunde Onakoya is, every bit, phenomenal. His vision of using the chess game “to help children in slum communities realize their full potential by integrating principles of the game with the management of daily challenges in life, enhancing abstract thinking, creativity, and innovation” is one that we have seen him prove as valid, and practicable. It is one that we can scale to achieve much more than has already been done. The principle of using a game to drive inclusion can be replicated in different ways in other parts of the country to ensure that those who have been left behind can be brought back into focus. “The greatest miracle of chess is in the innate ability of a pawn (the least valuable piece) to become a queen (the most valuable piece)”, Tunde Onakoya says. We must rally around him to help achieve his dreams of using chess as a tool to expand opportunities, as well as that of building the world’s biggest chess academy. It is possible. Tunde is a great Nigerian, a worthy Ambassador. He has done well. He deserves the accolades.


Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian communications consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Email: Editor@enterpriseafrica.ng




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