Kenya’s Chess Champion, Four-time Olympian and UNHCR Staff Member Promotes the Game of Chess among Refugees

Chess has a way of bringing people together. I can admit to the fact that it breaks the boundaries among refugees from different ethnicity and nationalities.

Jane Wambugu, a four-time Olympian and Women Candidate Master (WCM) stands out as one of the UNHCR staff making personal efforts to empower refugees in Kenya. She has served in UNHCR for more than 8 years as a Programme Associate in Kakuma refugee camp and in Nairobi. Jane is the current Kenya Open Women’s Chess Champion having won the tournament early in the year.

Jane fondly remembers her time in Kakuma refugee camp, between 2007 and 2014, when she organized chess tournaments with the youth in the camp. ‘Board games fascinate me. Chess has a way of bringing people together. I can admit to the fact that it breaks the boundaries among refugees from different ethnicity and nationalities.’ She explains while noting that she always got satisfaction in seeing young people from different nationalities learning chess together. 

Young chess players in kakuma during a tournament

Young chess players in kakuma during a tournament

Although she no longer works in Kakuma refugee camp, Jane is keen to replicate her camp experience in urban areas and elsewhere where there are refugees. She says chess has enabled her to interact with many people globally and her desire is to give refugees the same exposure.

“Some refugees like to play chess but they only do it to pass time,” she explains. She hopes that they can do it professionally and not just as a hobby. In her engagement with those that showed interest while she was in Kakuma, she taught them standard rules of chess and often invited Chess Kenya, the national chess federation, to organize chess clinics and training activities. She adds that Chess Kenya has been very supportive. Besides giving the players motivational talks during the clinics, the federation representatives impacted skills to the refugees such as recording games and using the clocks.

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Jane and Mutua of Chess Kenya in Kakuma during a tournament

Jane, together with Chess Kenya, organized the first Chess Tournament in Turkana County in 2014 which attracted 65 participants from both Kakuma refugee camp and the host community of Turkana.

Jane admits that many women and girls in Kakuma shied away from board games. ‘It was easy for me to fit in by playing with men and beating them,’ she said confidently. ‘They nicknamed me the Queen of Chess,’ she said with a smile. ‘I want to break the existing stereotypes. I believe that anyone can play chess including women.’

Jane 2012 by David Llada (002)

Jane at one of the tournaments Photo by David Llada

Her future plans include supporting refugees to participate in national tournaments. She would also like to establish Chess Clubs in school around the camps because chess boards are affordable. Additionally, studies have shown that chess improves analytical skills, intuition and planning as well as academic performance in children. Jane with the support of Chess Kenya donated chess boards to Morneau Sheppell Girls School in Kakuma towards the creation of a Chess Club in the school. More boards were also donated to local clubs and volunteer trainers in both the refugee and host communities in Kakuma. Jane is also open to teaching UNHCR staff members how to play chess so that they can join her in mentoring more refugees in the camps and urban areas.

Jane is currently preparing to compete in the World Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, to be held in September this year.

This is how Jane stands #WithRefugees.

By Modesta Ndubi