Michezo ya Mbao -- Mankala in East Africa
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Photo 1 -  Samburu playing in Illaut, about 100 km north of Maralal in Kenya

1 - INTRODUCTION. Mankala is one of the many names given to any of a vast variety of basically similar games played in many widely spread parts of the world. The common feature of all these games is that they are played with pebbles, beads or large seeds on regularly patterned playing areas or boards consisting of a number of pits arranged in two or four rows. These playing areas may be actual wooden boards or they may be holes scooped in the sand or even carved into solid rock. The generalised game is played from the West Indies to Hawaii and from Turkey to South Africa. This broad belt includes all of Africa, the Middle East, India, South East Asia, Indonesia and the East Indies, and the Philippines. The similarities between all the varieties of mankala leads to the inescapable conclusion that, at some time in the distant past, they all originated in a single place.

A thorough understanding of the games can yield much information concerning the movement of peoples and the contacts between the different cultures. For example:

i) The name mankala, or variations of it, is used in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Mombasa, Zaire and Malawi.  However, the local rules are not always the same.

ii) The name chanka, or variations of it, is used in India and the Philippines.

iii) The name wari, or owari, is used throughout Nigeria, Ghana and Niger. There is little variation in the rules. The same "West African" version of the game, with the same name, is played in the West Indies. There connection here would seem obvious. Further, the name weri is used by the Jopadhola of Uganda.

iv) The Swahili phrase "michezo ya mbao" used in the title of this article means simply "board games". A considerable number of names for these games have their origin in one or the other of these two words. In particular, omweso, mweso and wezo are names commonly found in Uganda and Tanzania.

v) Ambao, mbao and bao all derive from the word "mbao" which simply means "board" in Swahili. These are common, but highly unspecific, names for many of the mankala games. In some tribes they may refer to a specific version of the game but different tribes use the same name for different versions. Bao is the most common name in Tanzania. Forms of this word are found as far south as Malawi and west to Angola.

vi) Kombe is the name used for the game along the northern Kenya coast and in Lamu. The word has two meanings in Swahili: to hollow out by carving and to clean out, or bankrupt, an opponent. Thus "mbao ya kombe" means "the hollowed out board" while "mchezo wa kombe" means "the game of cleaning our or bankrupting". The first meaning refers, of course, to the method used to make the board and the second to the fact that the game is played until one of the players has lost all his counters and is "cleaned out".

vii) Soro and coro are extremely common in northern Uganda.  [In non-Bantu languages.  But the 'same word' (e.g. solo, tsolo), is found in the Bantu area at least as far south as Zimbabwe. - Mila Ed.]

viii) Aweet is the name used by the Dinka tribe of the Sudan. This version is played on the four-by-ten board.

ix) Mongale is commonly used along the coast and in Mombasa. It is related to the generic name mankala. Mongola is used in the upper Congo. However, it must never be assumed that the use of a name related to mankala implies a game similar to mweso, or an other specific game. The Egyptian mankala is played on a two-by-six board and is very different.

It is commonplace to credit the "Arabs" with the diffusion of the game. Though it is often assumed that the game was diffused by the Arab traders, this begs the question of which "Arabs" and by what sort of social contact the game was learned by other peoples. The game is mentioned in rather ancient Hindu mythology. It was not brought to India by the same Arabs who brought kombe to Lamu. It also appears that the game entered East Africa by at least two different routes. There seems to be no relation between the games played by those tribes whose contacts with the Arabs were extensive, such as the people of Lamu, and those whose contacts were marginal, such as the peoples of the Rift Valley area. For example, it is unlikely that the Arabs taught the Maasai enkeshui.

There is a second reason for spending more effort in understanding these games. Games, to repeat a truism, are a microcosm of life. And the games played within a society are a subtle reflection of the values of that society. For example: In the game, a single ‘hole’ is a ‘cattle corral’ by the Meru and the Maasai; in India it is called a ‘shop’ in Java it is a ‘rice field’. A European usually (though nor always) plays chess with slow deliberation. A Ugandan always plays omweso as fast as possible and the slightest hesitation is actually penalised forfeiting by the move. The Maasai have a unique style which gives the impression of incomprehensible confusion to any spectator insofar as several players appear to be, and actually are, playing simultaneously on the same board. In some societies the games are played only by men and are accompanied by elaborate etiquette; in others they are considered simply an amusement for old women and children.

2 - COMMON FEATURES.  There are a large number of features which are common to all mankala games. On the other hand, almost every game is exceptional in some detail. The most common version of mankala in East Africa is called mweso or mbao, or some variation of these two names. This is the dominant version in Uganda and Tanzania. However, though there is great uniformity in the rules of mweso, the game is not typical of mankala in general. For purposes of explanation I will define the following terms whose meaning will become clear in the detailed expositions of the rules:

Board (n) The playing surface whether it be an actual board, a series of pits scooped into the ground, or a pattern carved into living stone.

Capture (v) To remove one or more of the opponent’s seeds. They may be either removed from the game entirely or simply relocated to a holding area somewhere else on the board..

Chained move (n) A series of moves constituting a single turn.

Eat (v) To capture one’s opponent’s seeds.

End (v) To complete a move (not necessarily a turn). This occurs when the last of a handful is sown in a particular pit.. What happens next depends on the contents of the pit. The move may end with a sleep, a capture, or the next move of a chained move.

Handful (n) The entire contents of a pit. Once a handful is picked up it is sown into succeeding pits.

Move (n) A single step in the game consisting of sowing an entire handful of seeds.

Pit (n) The hollowed out locations on the board in which the seeds are kept when they are in play.

Seed (n) The individual counters with which the game is played. They may be pebbles, or actual seeds,.

Sleep (v) To complete a turn so that now it is the opponent’s turn.

Sow (v) To place a handful of seeds one-by-one into a continuous series of pits. This is the way in which moves are carried out.

Turn (n) One or more moves (a chained move) until a player ‘sleeps’. Then it is the opponent’s turn.

Here follow some features which are common to almost all mankala games: i) In game theory terms they are all "two person, zero sum games of complete information". That is, there are two sides, one’s gain is the other’s loss, and there are no secret or random moves.

ii) With the exception of mweso, all the games have from 12 to 24 pits arranged in two parallel rows. The two-by-six and two-by-seven versions are most popular in West Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and the Philippines. Two-by-ten and two-by-twelve are most common in East Africa. It is common to carve a large storage pit at each end of the board to contain the winnings of each side. For example this is done by the Tigani, Chuka, Gusii and Luyia in Kenya.

iii) A given number of seeds (always the same for any specific variant of the game) are distributed among the pits. This distribution may follow a fixed, non-uniform pattern, or it may be entirely at the discretion of the individual player. Uniform distribution is most common. In the case of a discretionary distribution an experienced player will probably choose one of the preferred openings, much as in chess.

iv) A significant difference between mankala and the majority of Western board games, including chess, draughts (checkers), backgammon, etc. is that no distinction is made between the seeds . Firstly, all the seeds have the same value. Secondly, the distinction ‘yours vs. mine’ only lasts until the board frontier is crossed. That is, any seed that crosses the dividing line between one player’s side of the board and his opponent’s immediately changes ownership, at least temporarily. Permanent ownership resides in the ‘sides of the board’. That is, one side is mine; the other side is yours.

v) A move consists of picking up the entire contents of any pit on one’s own side of the board and sowing the seeds, one in each succeeding pit, in a counter clockwise direction. The term ‘sowing’ used to describe this process is very apt. It is part of the game that some these seeds will go around the end of the row and over to the opponent’s side. This is not a permanent loss, however, since they may be regained in a subsequent move. It may at times even be strategically desirable to do this in order to upset your opponent’s arrangements. Certain pits may be omitted from the sowing process in some games.

vi) The significance of any move is determined by the pit in which the move ends. That is, the pit in which the last seed of a handful lands. To generalize, this may result in a) the player may sleep; b) a chained move which may follow a prescribed pattern or may be at the discretion of the player; or c) the capture of some of the opponent’s seeds. There are certain exceptions to the counter clockwise rule in East Africa which are not permitted in mankala elsewhere.

vii) All games provide rules for capturing seeds from one’s opponent’s side of the board and some allow capture’s from one’s own side.

viii) A game is over when one of the players no longer has enough seeds on his side to make any effective moves.

ix) The winner is decided by the number of seeds each has captured.

3 - MWESO.  Mweso is one of the many names of what is probably the best known East African version of mankala. It is played from Lamu southwards along the entire Swahili coast and inland throughout all the areas contacted by Arab traders. This includes the area west of Lake Victoria, all of Uganda and north into the Sudan. Further west, mweso is found in the western Congo and south in Malawi. Four-row boards are also found in north western Kenya. There is remarkably little variation in the rules and what variation there is consists of details such as the starting positions. A board of four rows with eight pits in each row is standard. There are exceptions, however. Four-by-seven boards are used in Zaire, four-by-ten in the Sudan. One board of four-by-thirteen has recently been found carved into solid rock on an island in Lake Baringo. It was apparently still in use. Nevertheless, four-by-eight is by far the most common. There are usually two sees per pit, always 64 altogether. The large degree of standardisation in the rules and the fact that it is not played by any of the tribes that did not have close Arab contact suggests that its introduction into East Africa is fairly recent compared with the other, two-row, games played here. Perhaps this variety was invented by the Swahilis. It is probable that at present mweso is gaining in popularity. A very good description of the game as it is played in Uganda is given in Omweso, a Game People Play in Uganda by M. B. Msimbi, (Uganda Publishing House). It includes much detail such as the names used by the various Ugandan tribes, the Luganda terms for certain special board configurations and the various customs surrounding the game in that country. In order to avoid duplicating what Msimbi has done so well, only a brief summary of the basic rules will be given here. Rules for series of games and for special models of play are also given in his book and will not be repeated.

Photo 2 -  Playing omweso in the streets of Kampala. Note the faint four-by-eight design of black dots on the wall behind the Pepsi bottle.

4 - BAGANDA, OMWESO.  The Baganda play on a very carefully chiseled four-by eight board. They are probably the most ornamental boards in common use in East Africa. A typical board is about 2 cm thick and 30 by 50 cm in area. The pits are square with sloping sides and closely adjoin each other with no gaps. Two models are in use. One type has a handle in the middle of one end (Diagram a), the other is split lengthwise and has two hinges so that it can be folded in half (Photo 3). The boards are always carved with a slight concave rounding at the ends. This makes them rather reminiscent of the Buganda dress style. The seeds are natural seeds. They are almost perfectly round ca. 1.2 cm in diameter and rather uniform in size. They are black and very hard. The scientific name is mesoneurum welwitschianum. Only men play the game in Uganda. In the past it was closely associated with the court of the Kabaka. The saying was, "If you don’t play omweso, you don’t know what is going on." That is to say, if you don’t spend time at court. Today it is played on national television every day for fifteen minutes before the news.

Photos 3 and 4 -  A folding omweso board from Kampala and a detail of mesoneurum welwitschianum seeds.


    Diagram a -  One possible starting arrangement.

Diagrams a, b, and c show different ways of setting up the initial positions. Diagram d shows that each opponent has two rows of the board. To make a move, the entire contents of any pit in the player’s own two rows are picked up and sown in the direction of the arrows. When the last seed is put down, the move is continued by picking up the entire content of the pit in which handful ended. This includes the last seed of the previous handful. A turn is over when a handful ends in an empty pit. The other player than takes his turn.

Diagram b - A second possible starting arrangement.
 
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Diagram c - A third possible starting arrangement.
 
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Diagram d - Normal direction of movement.
 
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Diagram e - Special areas allowing reversal.
 
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The key to the game is the last seed of a handful. If it lands in a previously occupied pit in the player's front row and both the front and back pits of the opponent’s side in the same column are occupied, the player captures the contents of both pits on the opponent’s side. He takes these captured seeds and places the first of these in the same pit where he placed the first of the previous handful. From there he continues sowing as before. This is the only circumstance in which seeds cross from one side to the other. It is not mandatory to make a capture if it is not strategically desired.

There is one exception to the counter clockwise rule: If a handful ends in one of the special areas with coloured text in Diagram e, and there are already seeds in the pit in which the handful ends, it is allowable to continue the move in the reverse direction. This is allowed only if an immediate capture can be made. It is not permissible to loop around the left hand end during a reverse move.

It is illegal to pick up an isolated seed. Since the game is over when one player can no longer make any moves, it is over when he has only single seeds scattered across his side or will be in this position in the foreseeable future. This player then loses.

A player may at any time ‘pass’ or omit a move at his discretion. If his opponent also passes then the first player is forced to make a move. It is common to decide the player to make the first move with a racing start in the same way as the Maasai do when playing enkeshui : Both players start simultaneously from the pits outlined in black in Diagram d. the first to sleep begins the next move of the regular game. The most interesting feature of mweso as opposed to other versions of mankala is that seeds do not leave the board; rather they only change sides. This means that a game can oscillate back and forth indefinitely, particularly if neither player is very skilled. All other versions come to an eventual end no matter how poorly they are played since from time to time seeds must be captured and removed from the board.