Mancala Games: Daytime Play, Nighttime Ritual

Three Dogon men playing the mancala game in, in the shade of the toguna or palaver awning, Mali, by Staffan Martikainen.
Dogon mancala players, Mali. Photography by Staffan Martikainen.

There isn’t a corner of the African continent where mancala games (“count and capture”) are unknown and where it is not widely preferred to other types of board games.

Although it looks simple, it is not a game of luck but of skill, calculation and strategy: its variations and complexities have often been compared to chess and to the Asian go. Unlike these other famous strategy games, the rules of mancala games have never normalized or unified. There are as many rule variations as there are ethnic groups or even towns.

 

Boards and Pieces

West African mancala games require two rows of symmetrical holes, either dug directly into the earth, or carved into a wooden board — or even more rarely, chiseled in stone or cast out of metal. The carved boards often take the shape of a canoe, a trough, or an arch, sometimes decorated with figures of men and women, huts of a village, or animal figures from folklore.

The playing pieces are usually the non-edible, otherwise useless seeds of a particular shrub, the Guilandina bonduc. The games in various parts of West Africa often bear the same name as these seeds. If no seeds are available, simple stones, cowrie shells, goat and sheep droppings, or (rarely) fabricated pieces like marbles can be used as substitutes.

  • Ornate, crocodile-shaped mancala board made by the Ekoi people of southeast Nigeria, out of wood and tin.
    Crocodile-shaped board made by the Ekoi people of southeast Nigeria, out of wood and tin. Source: British Museum.

 

General Principle and Rules of Mancala Games

There are thousands of variations in the rules of the game. Even the size of the board, the number of seeds, the set up, the rules of moves and capture, etc., are changeable. We will post specific game rules in the future.

Despite these major variations, some constants remain.

Set Up

Players start by claiming a side of the board (north or south). They set up the game by distributing seeds (equally or not) in the holes of the board. The number of seeds is a multiple of the number of holes the board has. West African games of mancala generally use 48 seeds, which means placing 4 seeds in each of the 12 holes. Then the game can start.

Sowing

Each turn, the player takes all the seeds in one of the non-empty holes on his side of the board. He then sows one of those in each of the following holes until he runs out. Unlike the Asian variations of the mancala game, the African versions are almost all played counter-clockwise.

In some games, a singleton, a lone seed in a hole cannot be moved, while others allow the move.

Eating

If a hole contains two to three pieces at the end of a turn (or under other conditions), the player can take the contents of one or more of the holes. In some versions, the player can only capture the last hole that he sowed. Other versions allow capturing the previous holes that he has sowed as well, or even taking the seeds in the hole across from his end point. Capturing the seeds is called “eating” the seeds. In most variations, captured or eaten seeds are removed from play, but some variations allow their reintroduction under certain conditions.

Once the player has sowed and reaped, his turn typically ends, although some variations allow the same player to gain an extra turn depending on the circumstances (like ending on a special hole for instance). The opponent can then take his turn.

Another popular rule is to require players to “feed” their opponent, to make sure they have enough pieces on their side of the board to be able to take their turn. Players who hoard all the pieces on their own side pay a steep price: when the opponent runs out of pieces on his side, they can take all the remaining pieces in play from the other player.

Other variations have special conditions for depositing, taking, or ending a turn in particular, “special” holes.

End Game

The game ends either when a player runs out of pieces on his side of the board, or when neither player can make any move.

The player who has captured the most stones is crowned the winner and he figuratively “captures”, “cuts the head off”, or “kills” his opponent.

 

Playing for Pleasure

Playing mancala games for pleasure is a daytime activity. It exclusively takes place outside, in the village square, in the shade of the village tree, or even away from the village, in the fields.

Throughout West Africa and beyond, playing mancala games is thought to be able to invoke rain or make vegetation grow, so it’s usually played during the dry season. If it’s played during the rainy season, the use of seeds as pieces is discouraged and sometimes forbidden. The Kanakura people from northern Nigeria play games with holes in the sand during the annual celebrations related to the end of a millet harvest.

Unlike chess, mancala is a very fast-paced game. The crowd of spectators that inevitably forms around the players can and will voice their opinions of moves, heckle or advise the players during a game.

The rules of who is allowed to play vary from place to place. In certain areas it is a man’s game, in others, men don’t deign to play, making it a female game. Although mancala games have educational value in teaching arithmetic skills, some places forbid boys or girls from playing. The Wolof of Senegal, for example, traditionally forbid non-initiated boys from playing. In the Dogon the cliffs of Mali, children in general are discouraged from playing mancala for fear that it will bring misfortune to the village, but the games of adults apparently don’t carry the same risk.

Generally, people don’t play mancala for any stakes, they don’t wager money over a game, and there is no reward to strive for.

In some places, though, the loser is subjected to series of insults, teasing and mockeries on the part of the winner, to which he can’t respond or take offense. In the Dogon game of in pere, the insults are even codified: a player who captures one piece from his opponent can say “I pulled your eye out”, for two pieces he’ll taunt “I gouged your eyes out”, acquiring three pieces spurs an “I’ll rub you” (he then hoists the loser on his back to rub his backside against a nearby wall), for four pieces, it’s “I cut your neck”, etc… Among the Wolof, the winner presses his folded index finger into the forehead of the loser until tears form.

 

Spiritual Mancala

But the game can also take on a more serious aspect. It’s thought to have an influence on the sex of unborn children, so the Baule women of Ivory Coast play a special variant of the mancala game in hopes of influencing their child’s development. Playing with a girl will increase the odds of the baby being born female, playing against a boy will inversely make it more likely their baby will be male. Women who want to give birth to twins will play against pairs of girls or boys.

When a Fon girl of Dahomey has her first period, she secludes herself in her hut for seven days as part of her initiation, which includes playing mancala.

Nighttime brings out the spirits, and, just as the weaver leaves his loom, and the blacksmith his forge for the spirits to use, mancala players leave their game boards and pieces outside at night for the spirits’ entertainment. Anyone playing at night takes perilous risks in attracting malicious spirits and offending them with mortal play… Their souls could be stolen, they could be cursed with sickness, their mother could die, etc.

But sometimes, people will take this risk for ritual purposes.
During funerary wakes, mancala is played at night in Dahomey, for example. The players only play to cajole and distract the soul of the deceased and any other lurking spirits.

The Alladian and Baule peoples of Ivory Coast also used this game at night and behind closed doors to determine who would be the next chief. The nighttime spirits of the ancestors would participate in this “electoral combat”, influencing their preferred candidate to win, giving their seal of approval to the new chief through the result of one or several games.

 

Symbolism of Mancala

Village elders gathered around in the village square to watch two men playing a game of mancala in Yagba, Kebbi state, Nigeria
Villagers playing a mancala game in Yagba, Nigeria, by August Udoh.

The number of pieces used to play is very symbolic. It’s usually 48, which in a large majority of West African societies was traditionally a sacred, universe unlocking number.

The game also takes on a metaphorical meaning. The board often represents a village and each hole is a “hut”. Different combinations of seeds in play represent different aspects of village life. Singletons are called “women” or “widows”, two are a “married couple”, other numbers of seeds are “chiefs”, “children”, “cattle”, etc.

In this region, the land of the dead is also widely thought to lie somewhere to the west. The mancala board is positioned to align with the east-west axis, with players sitting to the north and south. The movement of the seeds during the game goes from left (feminine symbol) to right (masculine symbol), from the west to the east. The continual cycle of the game inserts itself into the cycle of life, the cycle of death to (re)birth and back.

 

Origins of Mancala Games

The origins of this type of game are hard to trace.

The legendary manding hero, Sundiata, in his exile before founding the Mali Empire c. 1235, is reputed in the oral traditions to have won a sword from a neighboring king during a game of mancala.

But mancala games are much older than that. The word mancala referring to the game first appeared in the tenth century in the Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs), an Arabic collection of poetic verse. Indeed, the name “mancala”, a name used by many African societies to indicate this broad category of games, derives from the arabic word “naqala”, meaning “to move” or “to transfer”. One could conclude that Arabs were the ones who diffused the game. But this doesn’t mean it was invented in the Arab world, just as the English term “board game” doesn’t mean the British were at the source of all board games or even the main popularisers of any of them.

Archaeologists found the oldest mancala-type board to date in ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan, in the floor of a pre-pottery Neolithic house and carved out of limestone with two rows of six depressions. They dated it back to 5870 ± 240 BC which corresponds to the Neolithic Age, when human societies were beginning to master agriculture and animal husbandry.

Black and white picture of a limestone gameboard found in the archaeological site of 'Ain Ghazal in Jordan, that closely resembles a mancala-type game. Dated to around 5870 ± 240 BC. The scale bars are 5cm long. (Photography by L. Rolston)
Limestone gameboard found in ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan. The scale bars are 5cm (2 inches) long. Photography by L. Rolston.

Two other similar boards were found in Beidhi, north of Petra, also in Jordan, and another was found in the Neolithic layer of Chagha Sefid in West Iran. The rare discovery of these boards shows that this is one of the oldest, if not the oldest game known to mankind. However, it doesn’t offer definitive proof of either the place of origin or the actual age of the game itself, since this is a game that can be played simply by digging temporary holes in the ground and using perishable seeds that leave no archaeological trace.

Really, asking about the origins of the game (time and place of its invention) may not be the right question to pose, just like asking where, when, and who uttered the first word. Just like language, mancala may have evolved independently in several areas and eras, to be refined and perfected over time into all its different variations. Maybe it’s still evolving …

 

Sources and Further Reading

  • [French] Deledicq, A. & Popova, A. (1977). “Wari et Solo”, le jeu de calculs africain. Paris, France: CEDIC.
  • [French] Popova, A. (1976). Les mankala africains. Cahiers d’Etudes africaines 16(63-64), 433-458. Retrieved November 2, 2018 from Persée.
  • Voogt, A. J. (January 1999). Distribution of mancala board games: a methodological inquiry. Board Games Studies Journal, 1999(2), 104-115. Retrieved November 2, 2018 from Board Game Studies Online Journal.
  • Bikić, V. & Vuković, J. (2010). Board Games Reconsidered: Mancala in the Balkans. Issues in Ethnology and Anthropology, 5(1), 183 – 209. Retrieved November 2, 2018 from AnthroSerbia.
  • Rollefson, G. (1992). A Neolithic Game Board from ʿAin Ghazal, Jordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, (286), 1-5. Retrieved November 2, 2018 from Jstor.

 

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