Chess is a classic pastime to sharpen the mind. But, while you may think this game is limited to Russian arenas or elite universities, in Zambia, it is a sport for the every-man. Schools have chess teams, high-end shopping malls have large open chess boards, and in nearly any strip of shops or market stalls you will find a checkered board surrounded by players and interested passersby.
Capitalizing on this popularity, Kelly Kapianga, UP Zambia’s director, decided to bring this competitive past-time to the youth in Zambia’s prisons.
“We needed an activity to keep them busy” Kelly confided. “What they have in abundance is time, so we needed something sports related that could keep them engaged. So, I immediately thought of chess and draughts because it stimulates the mind and doesn’t involve too many resources or costs.”
From that, a new start-up project was born. During UP Zambia’s weekly prison visits, boys are introduced to chess through instruction about the rules of game, mentoring in strategy, and practice through free play. Then, later, if the facility allows, the boys begin preparing for tournament-style competition.
This project is not just a way to pass the time, however. During their incarceration, children are out of school and have limited access to educational resources. This leaves the youth with little mental stimulation, leading to greater cognitive losses and setting them further behind their peers once they are released.
Kelly believes the structure and mental acuity needed for the game can help offset some of the disadvantages put on these children while they are out of school.
“Chess is very intellectual,” he explains. “They can learn to strategize and how to problem solve and plan their next move which is something many of these boys have never learned before.”
Of course, not every child is a chess champion. “We also provide draughts [sometimes called checkers] for those that don’t have the interest in chess. If they are intimidated or unfamiliar, they can start with draughts and then watch the others as they play chess to build their confidence.”
Kelly himself grew up playing chess in his home village of Kasiya near Pemba in Zambia’s Southern Province.
“I had a great mentor that made me who I am today. I would always learn from him even though I was never in the chess club.”
This personal passion is something Kelly brings to the project which he wants to continue to grow as much as UP Zambia and Prison Services will allow. “It is something we can get multiple facilities involved in and do inter-prison competitions.”
Recently, the program has taken off after encouragement and support from Prison Services at Kamwala Remand Correctional Facility and Kabwe Medium Security Correctional Facility.
“We started by talking about chess among the officers that supervise the inmates,” Kelly explained.
They were immediately enthusiastic and soon many of the officers were challenging the more adept boys to friendly matches, allowing them to grow in their skills.
“We have several boys at Kamwala and Kabwe that are pretty good players!” Kelly explains, with a hint of pride. “The support we’ve received from authorities has been really positive. The commissioner general himself has great interest in the idea of tournaments.”
And with that support, the dream came alive. On May 25th, 2017, UP Zambia held its first ever chess tournament for juveniles incarcerated at Kabwe Medium Security Prison. Twenty-seven boys competed for the first-place medal, bragging rights, and quite a bit of chocolate.