October 5, 2016

Rooks and Roots: Youth Chess Team Raises Money for Ethiopia Trip

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chess and Community

Chess and Community encourages underprivileged youth to improve their lives through chess.

The Morton Theatre will transform into “little Ethiopia” on Friday, Oct. 7 as the Classic City Knights raise money to send the local youth chess team to the real Ethiopia.

The event will feature Lemuel “Life the Griot” LaRoche performing his poems to an array of live instruments such as violins and harps, Ethiopian coffee from Jittery Joe’s, Ethiopian food catered by Mannaweenta and music from WUGA’s “African Perspectives” DJ Akinloye Ojo.

The Global Education Foundation and Life’s nonprofit Chess and Community are taking a handful of Knights to Kutaber, Ethiopia for 20 days next summer. As well as starting a service learning project, two secondary schools there have accepted a challenge by the Knights to take them on in a chess tournament.

“How do you really inspire children?” Life asks. “How do we get them to really learn what they learn about culture and diversity, engaging with other youth, then coming back to Athens? Then we can engage them as real leaders.”

Ethiopia, situated in the horn of Africa, is unique in that it was the only African country never to be colonized, so its culture and history are still richly accessible. “It’s going to be unpacking kids, unpacking experiences, unpacking cultures. It’s going to be a really good cultural experience for them,” Life says.

Liya Endale, the founder and director of GEF, met Life when he mentored her in high school. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and her family is from rural Kutaber, where her aunts and uncles studied and her grandfather taught at one of the schools that have accepted the chess challenge.

“I had a particular, poignant interaction with a farm boy working on my grandfather’s farm. It changed my perspective,” Endale says of her time visiting Ethiopia in college, her first time there since she was a toddler. She says she looked at the U.S. differently then. “It’s easy to get complacent here, and when you get complacent, you ignore your opportunities.”

Some Ethiopian students walk over mountains to get to school, and Life hopes that the Knights will get a chance to see what they take for granted, and upon returning to Athens, take advantage of the opportunities they have. “One of the overall objectives would be to understand poverty in Africa,” he says. “What we see as poverty is totally different in another country. We really see this as a way for [the Knights] to be engaged, sit in classrooms, in homes, to understand these kids.”

Post-tournament, the kids will tour the country, getting the chance to see the capital, visit museums, attend cultural classes, take lessons in Amharic—the only African language still written in its original alphabet—and hear professors from the area speak and engage in a cultural exchange opportunity with kids their age. Nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Ethiopia, and the goal is to see as many as possible.

But the crux of the trip is the first of many Collective Hands service learning projects that the Knights will begin during their time there. The hope is to establish a connection in 2017, then take a new group each year and continue working with the same community, keeping strong ties between Athens and Kutaber. Chess is the “universal language,” as both Endale and Life say, that will break the ice between the two groups of kids. The “think before you move” motto of Chess and Community will help prepare the Knights to navigate a country and culture different than their own.

Tickets for the benefit show are available at, at the box office and at Mannaweenta.

WHAT: Life the Griot and Friends
WHERE: Morton Theatre
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 6, 6–8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $25 (adv.), $35 (door)