For 10 months, the little bit of money that the Nigerian school was struggling to raise for his tuition allowed 11-year-old Tani Adewumi to follow his dream to become a world-famous chess grandmaster. When school fees were finally paid for by the city’s authorities, it allowed him to compete with and knock out some of the best male teenagers in the world.
Unlike most of the children that play chess – the average age of a world-class prodigy is 10 – the remarkable young Nigerian was expected to be home with his family after hours of playing. Even though he was away in Moscow, he was only allowed to go on off days by his parents.
Last year, however, Adewumi’s parents had to risk expulsion from the school when they refused to remove a woman from Adewumi’s chess group. Under the country’s child welfare laws, the presence of the woman constituted a conflict of interest because she had worked there since 1997.
For around 15 years, Adewumi’s parents Njambe and Michika have been living in the absence of their sons Tani, 11, and Oluwaseun, 13, in their home village of Jere in the Ogun state in southern Nigeria. Oluwaseun has cerebral palsy and cannot speak. But because neither of the boys is brilliant, but have endless talent, being home alone is stressful and exhausting.
“I try to prepare my kids before they are released, but if I do not prepare them, they will start fighting, even when the parents are out,” Michika said. “I cannot really tell them to behave and look out for each other. But I do try.”
Still, Michika knows that she and her husband do not have the full picture of their sons’ lives. They did not even know that Tani was using his newfound fortune to travel around the world to compete in international chess tournaments, organised by the Nigerian state as well as local authorities.
Dotun Arogundade, the governor of Ogun state, arrived in Jere in January 2018 to mark the international boy’s day held on 3 July, when the children’s wing of their school is declared open. In a short talk before the children, Arogundade described how Okobo high school, which has been a melting pot of Nigerian ethnic groups and cultures for decades, had become a melting pot of real state funding.
A year later, the governor went to Jere and delivered an official report to the local politicians. The report had included details of 10-year-old Tani’s plight.
“Ten children were prevented from matriculating from the school because of serious family problems,” the report said. “Ten children who, as children, have not had any form of financial hardship and showed extreme enthusiasm to excel were still denied admission for the school examinations. Therefore, we decided to direct the district to participate in a very drastic decision that would force the government to make a change.”
Arogundade’s order to the school director gave him the final authority to determine whether families who have not been able to pay for years should have their children expelled. He also instructed his secretary to write to the headteacher, petitioning the authorities to assess students against the guideline to ascertain who has not passed the national examinations.
“The latter means the consequences for those who have not completed their classes are severe and painful,” the report said. “You cannot really help those who have not completed the full two years’ programme.”
Determined to change his ways, the district director on 1 March declared an expulsion ban, including the provision that parents must pay the fine to stop their children being expelled. Adewumi’s fine came to about 5m naira (£12,000).
Michika was reluctant to admit that Tani could be a chess star, but the boy’s immense talent was apparent right from the start. When he started school at age six, no teacher was prepared to even take his picture because he was so small and frail.
But in 2013, with each move of the match in the past second or two, he began to look very different. It was the same with opponents’ reactions.
When he faced one of the two best young male players in the world on 26 February at the Chess Grand Prix tournament in Sochi, Russia, Adewumi became the youngest world-class chess player, male or female, ever to compete.
He defeated Rafael Dragas, now 22, and currently the No 5 ranked man on the chess table, in the final match by a massive 5-1.