NIGERIA – From homeless refugee to chess prodigy, 9-year-old dreams of becoming youngest grandmaster

ESPN | Aishwarya Kumar | May 23, 2020

IT’S 9 P.M., and 8-year-old Tani Adewumi is wired, like he’d just swallowed a bag of sugar. He had played chess all day, but he wanted to play more, at least until midnight. The first day of the 2019 New York State Scholastic Chess Championship had just ended, and he finished with three wins in as many matches, surprising a former champion and two other seeded players. He was heading into Day 2 — the final day of the tournament — in the lead, and he wanted to keep up the momentum when he returned to the huge Airbnb he was sharing with his family, his coach and a few other coaches in Saratoga Springs.

ON A DREARY December 2016 afternoon, Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi, sat in his dining room chair in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, with his palms on his head, staring at his computer. A poster with the words “No to Western education” and “Kill all Christians” screamed at him from the screen. But what was more terrifying was the logo that accompanied the words — a logo he could recognize in his sleep. It was Boko Haram.

Four men had come into his printing shop earlier that afternoon and, after handing him a thumb drive, asked him to print 25,000 copies of the poster saved on the drive. Kayode didn’t think much about it until this moment, back in his house, with his wife, Oluwatoyin, looking at him, her eyes narrowed and worry smeared across her forehead.

Accepting the business meant he had to work for Boko Haram, a terrorist organization, and that, as a Christian, and a human being, he couldn’t bring himself to do. But refusing essentially meant a death sentence for him and his family, especially now that he’s seen what the poster says and can identify the four men.

He could hear Tani, 6, and his older brother, Austin, playing with friends out in the front yard, arguing about who gets to kick the soccer ball, and a fresh wave of fear went through his body.

What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?

Even before that threat, the Adewumis noticed their country changing under the attack of Boko Haram. Ever since the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from a northern Nigerian high school, Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians had only increased. In 2015, a bomb blast occurred so close to Oluwatoyin’s office that she could feel the heat as security escorted her out of her office. The day before the Boko Haram men came into Kayode’s print shop, Tani and Austin had come home from school early — they were evacuated after Boko Haram sent a message threatening another attack on a school in Abuja. Tani had peppered his parents with questions. “Why were we let off early?” “Who is Boko Haram?” “What is religious extremism?” All the while, his parents were able to shield him. They didn’t know how much longer they could keep doing that.

Kayode came up with a plan. When the men come for their posters the next day, he’ll tell them he couldn’t do the job because his printing press had broken the previous evening. He’ll then hand them the flash drive and tell them he hadn’t looked at it because he hadn’t needed to. Clean lie. He prayed they’d bite and leave his family alone.

They didn’t believe him. A week later, when only Oluwatoyin was home and the children were asleep, they showed up at the Adewumis’ house looking for Kayode’s laptop. They assumed Kayode had seen the poster and saved it to use against them. Let’s use Oluwatoyin to send Kayode a message, Oluwatoyin heard them whisper to each other in Arabic.

What they didn’t know was this: Oluwatoyin was raised Muslim and spoke Arabic growing up. When she heard this, she knew they were going to kill her or rape her. So she did the one thing she could still do: She knelt and began to pray. Atuasal iilayk — I’m begging you. She said the Arabic phrase over and over. “Are you a Muslim?” they asked her. “Yes,” she whispered, as tears fell down her cheeks. Silence followed her response. They looked at each other, and without saying another word, they exited the house.

A few weeks later, Kayode asked Oluwatoyin to pack a small bag of necessities. Without informing anybody, the family moved to Akure in rural Nigeria, to a house with a tall fence. They hid there, using their savings to get by, hoping Boko Haram would lose track of them so they could eventually go back to living a normal life in that small town.

A few months into their life in Akure, when they were getting ready to go to bed, they heard a noise — like somebody was shaking their fence. Boko Haram, they realized, had found them. “You’ve been escaping us for far too long, but we know you are inside, and we know that today you will go to heaven,” they heard the group of men yelling from outside. Kayode asked Oluwatoyin to go to their kids’ bedroom and pray hard, because nothing short of a miracle could save them now.

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