An Interview with Chess Instructor Kola Adeyemi

Q & A with Kola Adeyemi:

B: I would love to start with hearing about how your general experience was.

K: I’ve known Evan for quite a while now, upwards of 10 years when we went to Tanzania. When he reached out to talk to me about the opportunity to teach chess there, I thought it was an amazing idea. We ended up staying with Make a Difference Now, a program with a guesthouse right next to Mt. Kilimanjaro during a seven-day period. During the day we would make it to the school, teach for a few hours, and make it back to the house. For me, the most rewarding part of the experience was seeing the kids pick up something new and actually want to do it. By the end of the week, we had kids playing chess at a beginner level, but more than that was the notion in their eyes that they were going to take the skills they learned and develop it beyond the singular week that we had with them. I also think they learned a new activity over which they could bond, create a society and even a school. We ended up nominating a kid to be the president of their chess club and he took that duty with honor. I’m pretty excited to see what comes back when Evan goes again with the rest of the team.

B: What was the initial reaction when you were first introducing them to chess? Were they happy to learn it at first? Was it confusing to them?

K: Initially, the kids were unsure what it was. Upward of 50 kids participated at the height of the class and maybe four of them had seen the game before. Initially, we just wanted to make sure they understood what we were saying so we tried getting participation at the beginning. It was hard to break their shells, given our foreign nature and their lack of experience with the game. But I think that Evan did a great job getting them to participate – getting them to play in games and to see what chess would look like. He tried to explain to them why chess could be good for them academically. I think that by the time we got to the third day of the seven-day period, we finally had broken the kids out of that shell. From then on, it was more of the kids asking questions and figuring out the rules of the game.

B: How much time did you spend with them on a daily basis?

K: That was a function of their schedule, because we tried to jam our chess lessons in during the time they have their normal activities. I would say we had maybe three or four hours on average per day. As you can imagine, teaching someone who has never played chess before with roughly 20 total hours throughout the week was challenging. As you would expect, some people picked it up better than others. By the end of the week, we had created some followers and players of the game. We thought that by creating that community around chess, we could encourage the kids to continue to teach each other chess. We tried to create this kind of environment of competition to spur their desire to be better.

B: You mentioned Make A Difference Now as the program that you stayed with. What role did they play in the entire program?

K: MAD is a phenomenal organization. From what I had heard about them before I decided to go, I was already deciding if I wanted to physically attend the trip or to just donate to MAD itself. Charissa has a strong passion for what she’s doing, and it very much shows. In their case, along with housing us, providing us with a driver and making it feel like home for us, they partnered with Evan to bring us there, identifying the fact that learning chess would be beneficial to the students in Tanzania. Second, they interacted with the school to make sure that they were open to the idea, and lastly they prepared the school to receive us. It was helpful to have MAD staff be there with us on certain days to introduce us to some of the kids. In terms of facilitating the entire process, it was excellent, but they also set the whole thing up.

B: Were there any language barriers when you were there and if there were, how did you overcome them?

K: We found that in Tanzania, most of the kids spoke satisfactory enough English to understand what we were saying. I would say that as is usually the case, when you have someone from an English speaking country go to these places, you have to slow down how quickly you speak. It’s not that they cannot understand what you’re saying; it was mostly just a matter of making sure that we were speaking clearly and slowly enough. We encouraged them to stop us and ask us questions. We used a lot of repetition, continually saying that when you start the game, you need to have three objectives.  You must control the center, the castle and to develop your pieces. That way, when we got around to actually playing the game, some of these rules were actually a chorus in their minds.

B: What kinds of concerns did you have initially before attending the program in Tanzania, and how were those concerns pacified? Did any of them stay prevalent?

K: My biggest concern was whether or not the program was going to be well organized. In my mind, I was hoping that we’d be going there to teach the kids and that they would be excited to play the game. My concern was quickly removed upon my arrival – you can tell from the beginning if something is well organized. Upon entering the MAD home, we immediately conducted an orientation with some of the staff. It was very clear that they had planned out the entire schedule for the week. When we made it to the actual school, I can tell you that these kids were very well behaved, beyond their age. One of the jobs of a chess instructor is to make sure the kids are listening, but this wasn’t an issue. It’s just a testament to the preparation that the organization had, because they really knew that we were coming.

B: How many other volunteers came with you and Evan?

K: Besides Evan and myself, we had two other people from the US, and one other guy who was actually local. When chess players move to different cities, they like to get an idea of where chess is happening. He came to teach English at one of the local schools, but he had done a search about where he could teach chess and an advertisement from MAD came up about Evan coming to teach chess in the area. He joined us and volunteered his time to teach the kids. That made about five instructors total for the week, which was a good number, but if were to expand to other schools, it would certainly be helpful to add more.

B: If you were to go on the program again, what would you change this time around?

K: This question would depend on if we were sticking with the same school. If we did, I would want to do a lot of question and answer sessions, just to get a sense of some of the mental errors that the kids have been making over the last few months. I remember when I was first learning chess, I would castle the wrong way on the queen side. I would want to make sure that issues like this were out of the way. I would also like to introduce teaching material, or at show the kids where they could go to in order to read up on more strategies about the game. Because the kids don’t always have access to the Internet, it may be a bit difficult; but we could certainly share that with the teachers of the school and have them print out some of that material for them. I certainly benefited from encyclopedias when I was a kid, going to high school in Lagos, Nigeria. I remember going to the library, just looking for any materials that I could get. Lastly, I think the program could benefit from the kids being able to interact more with the instructors once we leave the country. Whether that means playing online with us, asking for advice, or having a pen-pal relationship, some kind of mentorship present could be very helpful. Starting with a new school, trying to find a way to break the aforementioned shell more quickly would be helpful.

B: Where do you see this program going in the next few years?

K: My perception was that this is only going to get bigger. Sure, it is starting in Tanzania, but it can become regional. It could be broader; it could be across the continent itself. I think my main excitement comes from the kids being able to understand that there are different ways to interact with the outside world. The ability to play in chess tournaments outside of Tanzania, to get better and to actually represent their country at an Olympiad is a very exciting prospect. I know that Tanzania doesn’t have as many strong players, so there is a great opportunity. There is also a possibility for sponsorships and tournaments. I am hoping that there is a way that these kids could be connected to schools in the US. I know a lot of schools and colleges here who have chess scholarships, and I know that there are many students in Tanzania who would definitely benefit from that opportunity. This could only get bigger, and I’m really excited to see where it goes.

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