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It’s time to raise the standards of how we manage sport in Africa

Reflections from the Africa Youth Chess Championships 2022 in Lusaka, Zambia

My son and I have just returned from Lusaka, where he and 20 other young people competed in the Africa Youth Chess Championship 2022. Chess as a sport has grown over the past few years in Kenya and on the continent. It has moved from being an elite game, to being available to young people from all walks of life. The tournament had delegations from nine African countries, including South Africa, Egypt, Namibia, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Ethiopia and Kenya. We took a delegation of 21 children and 8 parents.

“In our first (Kenya) National youth championship in 2016, we attracted 280 participants in Alliance High school. Today, we are hosting about 2000 participants. Next year we are preparing for about 2500-3000 participants,” said Mr. Bernard Wanjala (left), the president of the Chess Federation of Kenya, speaking to parents in Lusaka last week.

Given the popularity that the game of chess has gained over the past few years – mostly thanks to the work of the federation – it is important that the appropriate investments are done to make sure that Africa continues to excel. I could not say it better than this Tweet, by @MrWainaina_ on July 9, 2022.

It’s incredible how, with backing, Kenyans excel at Sport. Athletics sure, but also tennis, motorsports, rugby, cricket, squash, netball, volleyball etc. I truly hope the that next government treats it seriously. It should be up there with Agriculture and Energy as a critical Ministry, and not just lumped with culture and heritage as a place to stick non-performers and/or political creditors. It’s infuriating when teams can’t compete because of budget, or have to make do with rat-infested quarters abroad.

@MrWainaina_ on July 9, 2022.

Unfortunately this trip was a demonstration of how poorly sportspeople representing Kenya are treated and what lengths they have to individually go through in order to compete and excel.

The challenges started beating the Kenya team attending the event about two weeks before the game, when a memo was issued by the Ministry of sport to the Chess Federation of Kenya that they would not be supporting the Kenya team, as they had committed to, because of budgetary constraints. It turned out that Chess Kenya had all their eggs in that basket and they had not worked on a plan B.

In effect, Chess Kenya informed parents that they not have the money to support the national champions – children who had worked hard in the regional and national tournaments to emerge top in their categories. Worse yet, they said, they did not have the money to send officials and coaches to accompany the children to Lusaka.

The challenges started beating the Kenya team attending the event about two weeks before the game, when a memo was issued by the Ministry of sport to the Chess Federation of Kenya that they would not be supporting the Kenya team, as they had committed to, because of budgetary constraints. It turned out that Chess Kenya had all their eggs in that basket and they had not worked on a plan B.

In effect, Chess Kenya informed parents that they not have the money to support the national champions – children who had worked hard in the regional and national tournaments to emerge top in their categories. Worse yet, they said, they did not have the money to send officials and coaches to accompany the children to Lusaka.

They therefore could only support those parents who could raise the money for the travel by helping to book flights and working with the Chess Federation of Zambia to register, accredit and accommodate the players.

There was an injustice here, which was not lost to my ten-year-old son, who observed that the kids who had beat him to emerge at the top of their category were to be left behind just because their parents could not afford the heavy costs associated with the travel. We are talking about Kshs 70,000 per person return flight tickets, another Kshs. 7,000 per night accommodation in the approved hotels as well as the federations’ various fees for registration, accreditation and administration. This was not going to be easy for parents who knew up until two weeks before that the government would be footing this bills. At least the parents of the additional players, like myself, had had some time to gather up the funds needed for the trip since we knew we were self-sponsored.

Accommodation & Logistics woes

My son and I arrived in Lusaka on the morning of July 1st. We were met at the airport by a transport crew contracted by Chess Kenya. To our happiness, we learnt that we were traveling with Mr. Wanjala, the Chess Kenya president and another player, who was accompanied by his mother and younger sibling. At least there was a chess official in Lusaka with us after all.

We had expected to be staying at the venue of the tournament, the Mika Convention Centre. When we arrived there, we learnt that the hotel was full and only the president was going to be staying there. My son and I as well as the other family were to be moved to another hotel, 12 km away, called the Chamba Valley Exotic hotel.

We checked into the new hotel only to discover that we had been placed in their worst possible rooms (See the bathroom of one of the rooms we were given). The doors were suspiciously rickety and sliding doors to the balcony could not close. The rooms were clean but the bathrooms were suspiciously dark, with walls of badly made tiles. A quick look at Booking.com suggested that for less than 70USD a night we could stay in significantly better accommodation. The other parent felt the same.

As we contemplated leaving the hotel to move to another, the Chamba Valley Exotic Hotel front office Manager, Petronilla Mbulo (right), arranged for us to see other rooms that were significantly better – only that they had one double bed. We agreed to stay on condition that they put twin beds in each room. The Chess Federations had decreed that all players would be sharing rooms and it was unfathomable that they would be expected to stay sleep together in one bed!

Bella, the other parent and I suddenly found ourselves as the advance organising committee for the Chess delegation that would arrive that night and the next morning.

We hastily had to select the rooms for the rest of the delegation, advocate for double beds to be delivered and work with the hotel on how the team arriving Lusaka that night at 1:20am, would be received. Many of the children coming, were unaccompanied by their parents, and in the absence of officials of Chess Kenya, we had to prepare.

Petronilla turned out to be extremely helpful to the Kenya team – going above and beyond to make sure that the needs of the team were catered for, and she became the most reliable connection we had with the organisers.

By the time the first of the Kenya delegation were arriving at the hotel at 3am, Bella woke up to help receive them, ensure the unaccompanied children were checked in and fed – many of whom were under 12 years old and a few were 8 years old! There were no officials at the time from Chess Zambia.

The rest of the team arrived on June 2nd, at the same time as many other teams from other countries. The other teams had to wait for team Kenya to check in first because we had already pre-selected our team’s rooms.

In all of this, we could not get Chess Zambia or Chess Kenya to provide real support. We were even more dismayed when the president told us that he was not in fact coming as the head of the Kenya delegation but that he was on Africa Chess Confederation business, since they had paid for him to come as one of their officials.

“You are on your own,” we felt he told us.

One of the important people who arrived with the team was Coach Tom Amwai. Coach Tom had raised his own money to come and support the kids, with Chess Kenya making a small contribution to his trip. He was prepared to commute to the venue daily from a small, cheap guest house in his determination to support the kids, many of who train under his care.

The games started on July 3rd and the team parents in Zambia had organised themselves. Bella, Naomi and Phyllis would make sure the children were fed and prepared, Coach Tom and Dr. Makanga would be the team coaches preparing the children for their game. Judith would be our liaison with the chess arbiters during the games. I would help organise transport and logistics. All the parents (including the ones in Nairobi) would contribute money for the kid’s snacks excursions on the rest day and so on. We were a well oiled machine.

Duty of Care

Chess Kenya insisted that parents pay for accommodation and flights through them, in addition to the chess fees. They seemed not to realise that this in turn conferred on them a duty of care for the competitors – all of whom were children. Parents had handed over their children in trust to the organisation. How then can chess Kenya not have officials directly responsible for chaperoning those children? How could they assume that the parents who are there would take responsibility for the safety of those children?

I shudder to think what might have happened if one of the children were to be harmed in some way or lost. Who would be held liable for that incident? The volunteer parents who had traveled for their own kids? The venue for the tournament was vast and there were people coming and going at all times. If one of the children disappeared, who would be to blame?

Some of the parents took pity on the smaller children and decided not to leave them alone in the room and instead brought them into their own rooms for better care and closer attention. If a child fell in the bathroom and hurt themself, who would be responsible?

“You are new parents, you don’t understand. This is how we have always done it.”

Every time I raised my issues, this was a common refrain. Chess Kenya told me that I did not understand as this was my first tournament. This was how things have always been done and everything goes well in the end. But then, I was told by some of the kids and parents of a tournament last year that was held in Accra, Ghana. The Kenyan team was placed in the worst possible accommodation, causing them to refuse to check in and instead stage a sit-in until suitable accommodation was found. Again, the parents had to step in to find accommodation, which unfortunately was one and a half hours away. The children (that’s what these players are!) had to face off with opponents who slept at the venue and who were fresh, while they had ben up for at least three hours.

It is time we raised our standards

While it is true that Chess Zambia have done a really bad job of organising the tournament, I can only fault Chess Kenya for their lack of foresight and responsibility for the children. “The way things have always been done” should no longer be an acceptable standard for Kenya. What I hope they will do in the future is:-

  • Start early and raise funds from private sector as well as government.
  • Recognise that the logistical planning for Kenyans must be done by the officials of Chess Kenya and take that responsibility seriously recognising that the players in many tournaments are children.
  • Take an advance team to confirm the accommodations provided for the team, structure how food and transport will be organised
  • Ensure that the children have competent adults accompanying them at all time
  • Have more than one coach present to prepare the children
  • Let the Kenyan embassy in that country know in advance that Kenyans are coming and enlist their help
  • Be present and available throughout the period.

We are excited that our under 8 girls champion, Winnie Kaburo (left), took the gold medal. She had a solid 9 points in 9 games and is set to go for the World Championships. The other children did not do too badly and we expect that they will compete in other tournaments, including the Africa Schools Chess Championships in Liberia this December. We can only hope that Chess Kenya will be better organised to support Kenyans.

I am a writer first and foremost. I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, which I define by finding ways to innovate the world’s processes to make life better for people – whether in business or in the non-profit sector. I am professionally involved at the Open Institute, Thellesi Co and various agricultural ventures.

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