Sunday, May 10, 2009

your move...

About two months ago we began running an after school chess class. This was made possible through an EwB collaboration with Chess for Hope (, an initiative of Ikamva Labantu, an NGO that runs various programs for youth in the townships. As part of the Chess for Hope program, a teacher would come twice a week to work with the students and teach them how to play chess, while using this platform as a “vehicle for social and personal change”. The program has thus far only been operating in Primary Schools, as this is where they feel they can have the greatest impact (and the proof is in the pudding as their success in the schools in which they have been working over the past few years is astounding), they made an exception for Fezeka.

I was in charge of recruiting students for the chess club, which didn’t prove very difficult, although unfortunately we have yet to have a female member. There are a few girls that drop in from time to time, but generally the core group is all male. In total there are about 12-15 boys who come to my classroom to practice.

Unfortunately, their teacher was recently let go from his position, so the kids have been without a teacher for the past month. I have been assured from my contact at Ikamva Labantu that they are searching for another teacher. Regardless, the students continue to come and play at every opportunity.

For the first few weeks since the Easter Break, we were without Internet at school. Because of this, when we were back up and running late last week the emails to the school came flooding in. Among these was an email to all schools about a Chess Tournament taking place in Kraaifontein. I received the email on a Friday. The tournament was the next day, the deadline to register had been the week before. Undeterred, I tracked down the event organizer and was thankfully able to convince him to let us register anywayand pay a much-reduced registration fee.

The next morning at 7:45 am, my friend Carnita and I were at school to take the 9 students who had been able to go, to the tournament. Waking up at 6:30 on a Saturday morning doesn’t exactly rate highly on my list of favorite things to do but for my kids there’s little that I won’t agree to. We were on our way and the sun was shining brightly. A warm 24 degree autumn day. Gorgeous.

We reached Aristea Primary School around 8:30am. The difference between the school we had just left and the one we were walking into was impossible to ignore, as were the facilities. A green regulation football-sized field and a huge assembly hall greeted us up arrival. Though the students said nothing, I am sure I was not the only one who noticed the stark contrast.

In the hall rows upon rows of tables had been set up, with chess boards sitting atop the length of them. Kids as young as 5 were focused on their games and the din was barely above a murmur. I had told the students to come in full uniform as we were representing the school. As soon as we walked in it was clear we were the only ones who had felt the need to do so. Although I know none of them were pleased about wearing school uniform on a Saturday, none said anything to me. Personally I think they looked the sharpest of the bunch.

I spoke with the woman who appeared to be in charge and paid the registration fee. She informed me that the list of opponents would be posted outside shortly. When the time for this came it ended up there had been an error and all but one of our boys were without a match. They ended up playing each other for the first round. It was a fantastic experience watching all these kids play chess and definitely a first for our kids. It was obvious that many of these children had been playing chess for years and quite a few of them seemed to know each other. In regards to the racial demographic it was indeed mixed, although truth be told, the majority of the black kids were with us or had come as part of the Chess for Hope and Chess for Change (another NGO).

After the second round two of our kids had beaten their opponents, which we celebrated. It was the first time any of them had played against anyone but each other or friends and family members so their wins were especially sweet. As it was an all-day tourney, the time in between the games was quite lengthy. 2 hours was allocated for each game, with a half hour break in between. When it came time for lunch, Carnita and I surprised them by treating them to KFC. They were especially happy about this.

During the breaks the students would play chess with each other and many of the various other kids who were attending the tournament. A large group of children from Chess for Hope were there, many of them very young. These 7-year old girls were challenging our 19-year old boys group with a simple point of the index finger and “you’re next”. And they beat them badly. These kids have been playing for two years and aside from their chess skills, the confidence that playing (and winning) the game has given them is astounding.

The later rounds were not as successful for our boys. Regardless, it was a good day. The students left keener on chess than ever, as there is little that can force a 19-year old man to recognize the need to up his game than getting checkmated by a 7-year old girl in 4 moves.

The most interesting parts of the day came for me in conversations with the group. As I often do in discussions with my students, I gently prodded for information about their lives in an as non-intrusive way as possible. How did they all turn out so good? I asked them. All good students, without any records of truancy, no obvious involvement in crime or drugs, they clearly take their education seriously. Their reply to my question was simple:

Because they have support at home.

It didn’t matter if they came from single parent, grandparent or extended-family headed families, they all have support of some kind at home. This was both poignant and saddening as although this is hardly a surprise, hearing it from the mouths of these kids was for some reason more real, if that makes sense. None of them live in shacks either, I later found out on our car ride home. Carnita’s car rides were no less informative and entertaining. As she is equally interested in the students' lives, they had several great discussions in her car. Our favorite snippet of the conversation follows. Carnita asked each young man who is currently in grade 12 what they wanted to be doing next year and what they thought they were going to be doing next year. The most chatty and confident of the group wasted no time in replying:

“I want to be a civil engineer, but I think I’m going to be a sound engineer.”


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