Pandemic has sparked identity crisis for Nigeria’s biggest Scrabble star
WASHINGTON POST – On the 300e The morning he woke up in a friend’s spare bedroom, the Scrabble champion mulled over his next move and settled on a word.
Nine letters, 68 points: Defective. It had been a year since the pandemic interrupted high-stakes board game tournaments in Nigeria, crushed his business and forced Wellington Jighere, 38, to rethink his life.
Two decades of singular focus had brought him into this limbo, perched on a striped comforter, next to a pair of suitcases and a gold trophy, with just $ 53 in his pocket.
He had been a nerdy celebrity since becoming the first Nigerian – and the first African – to win the Scrabble World Championship in 2015. The victory came with a prize of $ 10,000, a wave of attention and an appeal from the President of Nigeria.
Now a flaw invaded his mind, time and time again, as he applied for unsuccessful jobs and pondered the past: Should I have learned different skills? Networked with more people? Do you care less about memorizing the Scrabble dictionary?
The coronavirus has revealed how fragile dreams can be, plunging people into cycles of loss and grief, hope and disappointment. In Nigeria – the homeland of unrest, as Jighere called it – the unemployment rate soared to 33 percent, one of the highest in the world, and that figure did not include those who managed to join the two ends under the table.
Or on the table, in front of silent crowds, arranging alphabet tiles for the chance to bring home thousands of dollars.
Scrabble is recognized as a sport in the country of 211 million people, where coaches train athletes obsessed with vocabulary on the state’s payroll. Nigeria has two players ranked in the world top 10, including Jighere.
After his victory in 2015, Jighere pledged to build a Scrabble empire. He designed his own board, the WELLYboard, and saw sales soar. He regularly competed in tournaments, earning enough to pay the bills. The next stop was supposed to be the National Sports Festival in March 2020 – Nigeria’s version of the Olympics – when plans started to crumble everywhere.
The nation recorded its first dreaded infection and was quickly locked down. No thefts. No parties. No gyms full of Scrabble tables. The National Sports Day has been postponed and postponed. People started playing online and WELLYboard sales fell 70%. No more constant movement, elegant hotels. Gone are the goals, the camaraderie, the enthusiasm for the future.
So Jighere sat down in his friend’s daughter’s former bedroom on the outskirts of Africa’s largest city. She had grown up, married and moved. Shouldn’t he have done the same now?
Nigeria’s rise to the superpower of Scrabble began in the 1970s, when college students studying abroad brought back boards from England and the United States.
The game exploded in Olomu, the southern village where Jighere grew up. His older brother made a cardboard set.
As a teenager, Jighere could beat anyone in the village. He won a scholarship to attend a better school in a big city and went on to earn, eventually gaining a star reputation in Scrabble clubs across the country, which number around 500.
The best players move up state rosters, pocketing monthly checks to keep mentally fit. The teams train together in the camps before major clashes.
Jighere placed third at the 2007 World Championship in India. Eleventh in the 2009 competition
In 2015, Jighere landed at the international competition in Australia. Jet lag had sabotaged his focus in some of those games, so he conditioned himself to sleeplessness in Australia games by playing chess for 24 straight hours before moving on to Scrabble. The award came in five letters for 36 points: muffled, like texture.
Jighere left Perth with a gold kangaroo-shaped trophy.
This kangaroo seemed to be watching him as life slowed down during the pandemic. Were they both
to collect dust?
Maybe it was time to stop, he had thought. He could turn to something more sustainable and get his own apartment.
Yet he doubted his determination even as he typed the words in December: “WELLINGTON LEAVES THE SCRABBLE”.
“There is hardly any way to make this work,” he wrote on Twitter, “hence this difficult but necessary decision to move forward now that I still have time for my side.”
But the National Sports Festival – that annual gathering of Nigeria’s top players – had been rescheduled in February, and his heart leapt. He could earn NGN 1 million, or about US $ 2,600.
Soon Jighere was back on the board, playing against other hopes, eager to reclaim his throne, happier than he had been in months.
Then the competition was canceled, again.
“I’m just trying to find a balance,” Jighere said, recounting the disappointment to his friend, “but it’s hard to walk away.”
“It’s addicting,” said Emmanuel Oyeleke, a former gamer who had abandoned the game to open a photo studio. The men were lounging in his crisp white office, where an assistant served coffee.
Oyeleke’s life after Scrabble was impressive: tens of thousands of Instagram followers, a sponsorship deal with Canon, a beautiful wife, a baby.
“Even in the last two months since I quit,” Jighere said, “I continue.
“Do you find yourself in Scrabble circles?” Oyeleke finished his sentence.
They laugh. Between them was a Scrabble board.
The Scrabble champion figured he would take a desk job. All office work.
He applied for positions at a pharmaceutical company, received no response and was concerned that such opportunities would be tacitly reserved for friends of friends.
Jighere needed someone to vouch for him – and quickly. The monthly athlete’s allowance from his home state, Delta, barely covered food and taxis.
He thought of Ojior Osikhena, a veteran Scrabble star who had retired from an oil company. The engineer had been one of his mentors for years.
Osikhena saw the game as a good influence on Nigerian youth – a way to learn strategy and discipline – so he sponsored private competitions, offering money for prizes.
If anyone knew how Scrabble skills translate into the workplace, it was Osikhena.
Jighere decided to visit him and ask if his former employer was hiring.
” World champion ! Said the old man as he opened the door.
Jighere entered the house of a clear breadwinner: fresh air. Huge TV. Leather furniture. Oriental rug. Photos of a smiling family.
A refuge like this had never felt so far out of reach.
Osikhena’s father was a teacher in Georgia, providing his family with the kind of connections and experiences that can make a resume stand out.
Jighere feared – often aloud – that Nigerians who had started at the bottom of the economic ladder would be all but doomed to languish there. It was a popular belief: even before the pandemic, a 2018 Pew survey found that 45% of adults in the country were struggling to move.
“You don’t really stop, do you?” Osikhena asked.
Jighere said he didn’t feel like a world champion. He felt flawed. And he was worried that if he didn’t stop playing he would never get out of this rut.
“I haven’t been able to develop myself personally,” Jighere said, his voice broken, “and I blame my excessive dedication to Scrabble.”
Osikhena shook his head.
“Only a few players around the world have the kind of vision you have for the board,” he said. “You can repackage this. “
Leverage your brand, the elder advised. Start a YouTube channel with tips and tricks. Become a sports commentator. Host games online.
Across town, two of their Scrabble buddies were battling to see who could win the most games out of 10. It would be a full day’s affair, and Osikhena had donated a wad of money for the winner.
The men took out their phones. “This epic cage fight kicks off at 10 a.m.,” wrote a person called “the Scrabbler” who was recounting the event on WhatsApp.
Jighere couldn’t bring himself to ask Osikhena for a job at the oil company. Instead, he thanked him for the pep talk and hopped in a car for the epic cage fight.
The players leaned over a plastic table in a cramped office with screened windows. A few spectators hovered nearby, taking photos. A man wearing a Nigerian basketball jersey scored.
They all greeted Jighere with punches. He stayed until nightfall, watching the action, eager to jump in.
After the games the men went out for a drink and Jighere volunteered to play the winner in a next round.
A few days later, his phone rang – a text from his Scrabble coach.
The National Sports Festival had been officially rescheduled for April. Was he ready?