It’s not a donkey; it’s a knight


It’s not a donkey; it’s a knight

When many see Tunde Onakoya, they see a master chess player. When I see Tunde, I see an amazing storyteller. As part of coursework for my Strategic Storytelling class at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, we had to choose a story and elaborate on  “distinct development/flourishing ideas that are implicit or explicit in the story.” I chose Tunde’s story told at a DLD (Digital-Life-Design) conference, an invite-only innovation conference for visionaries from around the globe.  Tunde has also told this story on many other platforms. It is a story of how he came to teach over 10,000 kids across 4 countries how to play chess in five years and send 1000 kids to school on full scholarships.

The following is an excerpt from my submission:-


1.Development Flourishing Ideas

Championing early childhood development and schooling:

The World Bank’s 2006 World Development Report suggests, “Actions to equalize opportunities in formal education need to ensure that all children acquire at least a basic level of skills necessary to participate in society and in today’s global economy” (P.11). The focus in human development has been to improve access to and the quality of education using supply-side and demand-side policies which usually include infrastructure development, research on new teaching methods, remedial education programs and increasing incentives for teachers. Tunde’s story champions education but introduces new insights on increasing the demand for education among the school poor, which should predict future commitment. Giving school poor kids an “intellectual identity” can also make parents reconsider the opportunity costs of not investing in the child’s education.


Critiquing theories of change:

In the same 2006 World Development Report (P.11), there is mention of an “experiment in Jamaica focused on undersized children (ages 9 to 24 months) that found that they suffered from lower levels of cognitive development than those of normal height. Nutritional supplements and a program of regular exposure to mental stimulation helped offset this disadvantage.” This study underpins the critical role of nutrition in cognitive development, yet it also inadvertently perpetuates a stereotype that impoverished children lack mental stimulation in their daily lives.  Mental stimulation can and does occur in various forms within low-income settings, albeit not always in the structured manner seen in more affluent environments. The informal education that occurs within the family unit or community, such as through storytelling, problem-solving in daily tasks, and traditional games, also contributes to cognitive and emotional development. Tunde’s story exemplifies this. The story also touches on individual agency vs. structural change concepts and inspires ideas for building structures that can scale individual agency for community impact. Programs that empower local leaders and educators, like Tunde, can harness individual agency to inspire and enact structural change.

2.Tools of Artistry

Juxtaposition: The perceived sophistication of chess played against the backdrop of poverty creates a striking visual and conceptual contrast, adding layers of meaning that provoke thought. The story creates a powerful and evocative image that challenges stereotypes and invites deeper reflection on the universality of human potential. It is also a universally recognized game, allowing the story to resonate across cultures and socioeconomic statuses. Chess is a game of strategy, foresight, focus, and creativity – attributes that would not be commonly assigned to children living in the slums of Lagos.  For the children, the game becomes a metaphorical battlefield where the limitations imposed by poverty can be momentarily transcended through intellectual combat. Allowing children from impoverished backgrounds to engage in a game that has historically been the preserve of the educated and affluent is a good way of changing perceptions about the children and changing the children’s perception of themselves.

Point of View/Centering: Tunde tells the story of the first time he encountered a game of chess as a little boy. When shown the knight piece, he called it a donkey. Fast forward to years later, when he first went into the slums to teach chess, another young man, just like him but years and miles apart, also identified the knight on Tunde’s chessboard as a donkey. Tunde and the kid were both wrong, but Tunde uses this artistic tool to stimulate the audience to think about why he and the kid were equally wrong (same answer). Tunde’s anecdote reflects not just a lack of specific knowledge but also provides insights into how context shapes our understanding (cultural literacy). Tunde’s story reveals how knowledge and language form our perception of intelligence and aptitude. Providing a new language for gauging the intelligence of kids living poor makes the story more compelling and memorable.


Author: Norbert Foy



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