‘It’s tough getting into competitive Scrabble here. The Irish scene is small’

New to the Parish: Lukeman Owolabi arrived from Nigeria via UK and Sweden in 2015

Scrabble family: “It’s an education for young people and adults, too,” says Lukeman Owolabi, who plays with his wife, Lucia, and their three children, Nicole, Mikel and Daniel. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Scrabble family: “It’s an education for young people and adults, too,” says Lukeman Owolabi, who plays with his wife, Lucia, and their three children, Nicole, Mikel and Daniel. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

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Lukeman Owolabi was a teenager when he started playing Scrabble. Every evening after school the young Nigerian would gather with friends and, with the help of an Oxford dictionary, play the game late into the night.

“I was the only Scrabble player in my family. My parents could barely speak English. I was just a secondary school boy who found it by chance. In the evenings and at the weekend, there were loads of kids who would come together to play Scrabble and chess.

“We loved the challenge of trying to outwit each other with English words. It started between myself and my friends as a mini rivalry of ‘I’m going to beat you’. But I became fascinated by the skills you actually learn from the game. I realised these were skills that you could apply in your daily life.”

In 1996, when he was 23, he took part in his first Scrabble tournament in Lagos. “The amazing thing about it was I came fourth, which was really impressive for somebody who had never played in a tournament before. I represented Nigeria at the African Scrabble championship in 2002 and in 2005 I went to the UK to represent my country at the World Scrabble Championship.”

After spending less than a fortnight in London, he decided he wanted to move to the UK to improve his Scrabble skills. “The Scrabble scene in the UK was very vibrant so I thought to myself, Let’s see if I can go back there, find a job and make a living in London.”

Owolabi returned to London in 2005, where he found work in customer service. After six months he moved to Glasgow and began working in the technology sector.

“Moving to a different country with a totally different culture was always going to be tough. You have to be adaptable and find a way to integrate yourself into this new society. But Scotland was one of the best places in the world because of the people. They were the nicest people I’ve ever met.”

Move to Sweden

Owolabi spent nearly a decade in the UK, where he continued to regularly play Scrabble. He also met Lucia, whom he later married. In 2013 the couple and their young daughter moved to Sweden. However, his job involved a lot of travel and he wanted to find a home where the family could all be based in the same place.

“I had been in the UK for a long time and wanted to explore another country. The language in Sweden was a bit of a barrier and I thought, if I’m raising young kids, English is very important. So we decided to try Ireland. ”

When you live in a place and feel part of that society, and your family is included, that is massive

In 2015 he, his wife and their two children moved to Ireland after he was offered a position with PGi, a software company in Clonakilty in west Co Cork. Shortly afterwards their third child, a boy, was born. “To be honest I was a bit worried initially that my wife wouldn’t like the town but fortunately she loves Clonakilty. It’s probably one of the best places you can live in Ireland.

“The people in Clonakilty are very friendly and that’s so important. When you live in a place and feel part of that society, and your family is included, that is massive. We have good schools here, we have the beach at Inchydoney, the restaurants, the pubs. I also like the quietness of the town and love the company where I work. There’s such a mix of nationalities there.”

Two years passed in Ireland before Owolabi began playing Scrabble competitively again. “It’s tough getting into Scrabble here. The Irish Scrabble scene is small, the problem is there’s no awareness around the game.” Owolabi says most Irish people see Scrabble as a leisure activity you play at home in the sitting room with family members. He also says very few young people are interested in playing the game competitively.

“One of the main challenges is phones and technology. Technology has taken over in the western world these days and people are glued to their phones. The average age of Scrabble players in Ireland is 50 and that’s no good for the future of the game. I really like the atmosphere of Scrabble here but I’d like to get more young people involved.”

He says playing the game can help young people improve their grammar and analytical skills. “It’s an education for young people and adults too. I also believe that Scrabble can keep young people out of trouble. When you’re playing you spend time with friends and don’t have negative thoughts.”

In November 2017 he travelled to Nairobi in Kenya, where he represented Ireland at the World English Language Scrabble championship. He also recently won first place at the Cape Town International Scrabble Tournament in South Africa and will compete in Malta in April.

“When I play Scrabble I just feel excited. It’s something that gives me so much joy. Every game is different and you’re always thinking two-three moves ahead. The kind of decision-making you need for Scrabble also helps in our daily lives. We’re all always faced with decisions.”

Free lessons

Owolabi is working on building up his new business, Mind Games Incorporated, which aims to make board games such as Scrabble, chess and draughts more accessible to students in schools across Nigeria. “We’ll be going into schools and universities to run free lessons and teach students mind games. Eventually we might have to charge to pay for instructors but for now the programme is just kicking off.”

He is unsure where the future will take him and his family but for now he is very happy in west Cork. “Raising kids in this town is good for them. When we make decisions now we always have to consider the kids and bringing them to Ireland has been great for all of us.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish

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