Adam Cheyo glances across the table at his opponent. A game has temporarily distracted them both from their duties as volunteers staffing Tanzania’s booth this summer afternoon at the African Diaspora Festival in Milton Keynes, north of London. Lithe and clean-shaven, Cheyo reaches over the wooden game board, scoops up a handful of large, dried beans from one of the rounded pits that line up along on the board’s surface and starts dropping them, one by one, into consecutive pits along the row nearest to him.
But when he drops the last bean into an empty pit, he leans back with a yelp of despair: His turn is over. He laughs and offers a fist-bump to his opponent.
Cheyo, 48, is a community engagement officer for Buckinghamshire Council. He smiles ruefully as his opponent begins a complex sequence of scooping and dropping on his side of the board. The game isn’t over, but Cheyo is sensing his own disadvantage.
“I feel really attached to this game, because I come from a community in Tanzania that always had it around. But I never played as a child. I started playing in my 20s. I am still a beginner!” he says.
This is a game without dice, without cards, without universally agreed rules. In its simplest forms, it needs only shallow pits in earth or wood, and tokens. It’s not even just one game—it’s a family of games. Cheyo and his buddy are playing bao, which just means “board” in Swahili. (Its formal name is bao la kiswahili, “the board game of the Swahili people.”) It is a popular variety of the games that are collectively known as mancala, one of the oldest-known games that is still played and, writes Alex de Voogt, a researcher on mancala’s history and psychology at New Jersey’s Drew University, “perhaps [mancala is] the most widely played board game in the world.”
When I played a game of Bao, board of wood well decorated A strong defense I did allow in the center saturated; Now seeds were sown into a row which in few turns devastated I said ‘Shurba’ when I played it, look at the Bao game I’ve won!
When I played this one mtaji [move to capture], I played it satisfactor’ly Until the seeds picked up by me filled up the cup entirely It swept the board then clear and free, no seeds in store were left to be I said ‘Shurba’ accordingly, look at the Bao game I’ve won!
—Swahili poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassani (1776–1840) lived in the port city of Mombasa, in what is now Kenya. His poetry follows the rhyming verse form called mashairi, and this poem was translated by games researcher Alex de Voogt.
The word mancala (often pronounced “MANK-a-la” or “man-KAA-la”) comes from the tripartite Arabic root n-q-l, which means “movement” or “transfer.” In this two-player game, opponents take turns moving tokens among pits or depressions, which are laid out in parallel rows. In whichever culture the game is played, the tokens are often called “seeds” regardless of what they actually are, and their movement from one pit to the next is often referred to as “sowing.” This hints at what may be the game’s origins: an adapted and ritualized mimicry of an action that reaches far back into human history—planting seeds in the ground.
The game comes in varieties that range from two parallel rows of six pits to four rows of seven, eight or more. Cheyo’s personal bao set, which he bought some years ago on a trip back to his birthplace of Kahama, in northwest Tanzania, includes literal seeds, smooth and rounded, from the msolo tree (Guilandina bonduc), known in English as gray nickernuts. But anything will do: beans, shells, glass marbles, small rocks, beads of wood or plastic, or whatever comes to hand. Some mancalas call the seeds “cows” and build strategies around trading livestock. Generally, the goal is to win more seeds than your opponent. In most versions players gather seeds won in a larger pit set aside from the rest, often known as a “house,” and is protected from the opponent; in other versions each player moves captured seeds off the game board.
Usually players take turns, but some mancalas include rounds of simultaneous play, which gives the advantage to those with minds and fingers nimble enough to outpace their opponents. Cheyo laughs as he points out this means that players who take too long to ponder the next move open themselves to ridicule from spectators. In this game, he asserts, speed and instinct—or the foresight that comes from years of practice—are everything.
The word mancala (often pronounced “MANK-a-la” or “man-KAA-la”) comes from the tripartite Arabic root n-q-l, which means “movement” or “transfer.”
“Bao players play in clubs which encourage speed play,” writes de Voogt, who confirms that breaking “the consensus on reasonable thinking time per move” is frowned upon.
All this means that mancalas can be as simple as a counting game for kids or as complex as chess. Masters can plot outcomes many moves in advance, and they know how to lay traps for the unwary.
Akeem Abiodun Ashiyanbi, a researcher into African visual arts based at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan, says bao “requires deep thought and good strategy.” Wherever it’s played, he notes, it is important to regard mancala as a social activity, one in which the comments and banter of spectators add color to the game.
Whereas chess, backgammon, checkers and other very old games that became popular in the West have received extensive study and popularization—even professionalization—there
is scant research into mancala, no professional players, and it remains little known outside its mostly African and Asian cultures of origin. De Voogt writes an “important bias” in 20th-
century anthropological literature that has to date overlooked mancala-type games in “nonhierarchical communities and societies” throughout the Global South.
“Bao players learn bao without the help of written literature,” he says. “There is only one manuscript in Swahili that deals with bao [and] it has never been published.”
Nor from antiquity have any wooden game boards or descriptions of rules survived, but archeologists have found rows of parallel pits chiselled into stone surfaces at sites across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. While it is tempting to identify these as mancala boards, de Voogt and other specialists remain skeptical. A game featuring two rows of five pits has been found at Roman sites in Turkey and elsewhere; there is a game from Egypt and the Levant with four rows of pits, documented since the 13th century and called tab, that has been found at Petra in Jordan. Literature and art from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome mention games, but none offer evidence of connections to mancala.
Did mancala develop later? Or was it just that mancala’s simplicity—scooping pits in the dirt and playing with seeds or pebbles “without the presence of a state to warrant” the activity, as de Voogt puts it—has left no evidence for archeologists?
Wherever and whenever mancala emerged, it has often been associated with travel. “Mancala players took along their boards when they migrated or when they traded with distant neighbors,” writes de Voogt. Some elaborate mancala boards are carved as ships, with bowed form and tapered ends, or decorated with fish motifs: The University of Pennsylvania and the Horniman Museum in London both have canoe-shaped boards from Sierra Leone in West Africa that look almost seaworthy.
That West African variation is known as oware, and it traveled west from the 16th to 19th century in the memories of people enslaved and sent to the Americas. It endures today through variations in Latin America and the southern United States under an almost identical name: warri, which is also the name of a city in southern Nigeria that was one of the kingdoms of the Niger Delta from the 14th century onward. Today the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Antigua are known for hosting championship warri tournaments.
Bao spread through East Africa’s trade routes, and it is played now from Somalia and Kenya as far south as Mozambique and Madagascar. It too has tournaments, held most often on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. Mancala was also carried east across the Indian Ocean by sailors, traders and travelers of all kinds, including enslaved people. There it was adapted and given local names while maintaining its fundamental characteristics. Ohvalhu has been played in the archipelago of the Maldives, off the southern coast of India, for 1,000 years or more. United Kingdom resident Geraldine Pinto, 55, born in Malaysia to parents of Portuguese and Filipino backgrounds, remembers congkak (CHONG-ka) from her childhood in Kuala Lumpur.
“It was very easy to play, because there were no numbers written down,” she says. “In Malaysia it’s predominantly played by women, not men. They would be chewing betel leaf, gossiping and playing. As a child, you’re fascinated, watching them. We would dig little holes in the ground and play like that.”
“In Malaysia it’s predominantly played by women, not men. They would be chewing betel leaf, gossiping and playing. As a child you’re fascinated, watching them.”
Pinto describes congkak’s gameplay and terminology: In Malay the pits are called kampong (villages), she says. Play proceeds clockwise around two rows of six or seven pits as each player tries to seize, or “eat,” the other’s seeds.
“It’s a very quick game. You need to be observant and tactical,” she says. Then her mood turns reflective as she brings out her own congkak board, made on the Indonesian island of Bali, which she uses for playing with her British husband and their daughter.
“We attach memories to congkak. I remember my parents preparing for a wedding with all my aunties. In the garden everyone was cooking these huge pots of curry, and the women were taking time out to play congkak and gossiping about the bride and groom. This game goes so deep, culturally, into our heritage.”
Beauty consultant Temitope Ajiboye offers her own personal recollections of ayo olopon, the mancala variation played among Yoruba people around the city of Lagos in southern Nigeria. “When I was little, with my grandma, every evening after reading a story, we would all sit and play under a tree. There would be a lantern on the side, they would do some fried meat. It’s the center of the community. The game means you get to sit with elders, so even if they’re having their own conversation, you’re learning while you play.”
Ajiboye says she is determined to keep the traditions alive, even after 20 years away from Nigeria in Britain. “I own 10 sets of ayo. If I have a barbecue in my garden, ayo is coming out. This is a piece of Africa I hold dearly. My kids know the game because it’s important. It’s part of our heritage.”
In another cross-continental echo, musician Maya Youssef recalls how her grandmother in Damascus played mancala “under the big tree in the yard, and [she] would try to teach us grandchildren how to play. I wasn’t brilliant at it, but I enjoyed counting and flicking the cool pebbles on hot summer days.”
In Milton Keynes, Cheyo went on to win his bao challenge at the festival. Satisfying, yes, he says, but “this game is bigger than a game.” He clears the board and gathers the seeds in a glass jar. “It gives me an identity and a cultural connection with strangers from all over the world. It’s for everybody.”