The oldest game in the world: many Africans have played or encountered the game called Oware or Bawo or variations of these names in their lifetime. But as Zangaphee Chimombo reports, it is about time this exhilarating game became a pan-African sport through national and continental tournaments as well as being taken to the Olympics.
Oware, on the other hand, has two rows of six pits, making a total of 12. Like Bawo, Oware sometimes has two larger or deeper "stock" pits positioned at the ends of the normally raised wooden board, carved like a stool, in which captured seeds are kept.
Oware in Ghana, Awele in Cote d'Ivoire, and Owela in Namibia all refer to the two-row version. But whether two-row or four-row, the game is played by African kings and subjects alike. History teaches that the mighty Denkyira Empire fell to the nascent Asante Empire during the Asante-Denkyira War of 1698 when the Denkyira king, Ntim Gyakari, was captured and beheaded by Asante soldiers while playing Oware (his board was carved from gold) with one of his wives. Many believe the game has great potential for the exploration of cultural unity on the continent. In Malawi, for example, one hardly passes through childhood and adolescence without having learnt Bawo--as the game is called there. Even the urbanised youth more familiar with reggae or hip-hop culture are at some point exposed to this "count-and-capture" game of skill and strategy. Elsewhere in Africa and the African diaspora, this pattern of pits is a familiar sight, be it the two-row variation of West Africa or the four-row versions common across Central and Southern Africa, variously called Nsolo, Mwambulula, Mfuwa, Ncombwa, Owela etc. In Europe, the generic name is Mancala (from Arabic, meaning "to move"), which entered the English lexicon in the 17th century from Latin studies of board games.
Rules of the game
The complete rules of this game warrant a book and several in fact exist, including ones freely available online. It will suffice here to briefly outline the rules and comment on similarities and differences amongst the variants.
Bawo has two possible starting positions. The rules have the following in common: two players take turns picking the seeds from a pit on the side of the board. The seeds are then sowed clockwise or anti-clockwise by placing a single seed in each pit until the seeds are finished.
The pit in which the last seed was placed may determine whether the move is a capture of the opponent's seeds or not. The move does not end until the last seed is placed in an empty pit, thus, when not capturing, the pit in which the last seed was placed becomes the starting point of the placing of the seeds for the next relay of sowing. Some variants such as Oware restrict sowing to one direction only: anticlockwise and allow a player to sow on the opponent's side of the board as well. Four-row variants such as the Ugandan Omweso have no restriction on the direction. Omweso allows capture from both front and rear rows but in Bawo only the pits in the front row are at risk. Captured seeds are sowed on the player's own side of the board.
Bawo, the undisputed king of Ncombwa games, has an additional "special" pit called nyumba which means "house" in the CiNyanja language spoken in Malawi, Zambia and parts of Mozambique. This pit has significance in the advanced mode of playing. Some Bawo moves allow a "stop" or "continue" decision if they are captured moves that terminate in the nyumba.
A Zambian myth recounts how, in the distant past, two chiefs, Munyama and Malumbwe, settled a dispute by playing Ncombwa, but the history of the game goes right back to Ancient Egypt. Wilbur Smith, the international best-selling author of Assegai, The Quest, The Triumph of the Sun, Warlock, Monsoon, and a score of other novels involving Ancient Egypt, who was born in Kwabe, Zambia in 1933, hints at Oware/ Bawo's genealogy by describing a game called Bao played in Ancient Egypt.
Whereas the two-row versions have been carried as far afield as Indonesia and the Caribbean by the African diaspora, the four-row variants originate in Central and Southern Africa and are still mostly found there. There is in fact a three-row version, called Gobeta, found in Ethiopia and parts of Sudan. An interesting historical question is whether the two-row version is a simplification of the four or three-row variation. Taking into account the dynamics of play, it would be equally valid to guess that the four-row version is a clever fusion of two two-row boards. Gobeta presents a unique case of being a three-row Ncombwa game. Identified with the Copts of Ethiopia, it seems to be a fusion of the Central African Omweso and other neighbouring two-row variants of Oware.
Considering that the now-extinct game of Senet played in ancient times also consisted of a three-row board (three-by-ten), it is acceptable to hypothesise that the ancient Copts, on encountering the four-row and two-row Ncombwa games from their southern and western neighbours, moulded Go-beta into a more familiar three-row board.
Ncombwa has not escaped the Eurocentric de-intellectualisation of the African. There have even been anthropological studies into how it is possible for an African mind to excel at such a game of obvious skill and strategy! From the continent that sprung mathematics and philosophy, however, it should hardly be of surprise that what may be the oldest board game in the world lends itself gracefully to mathematical inquiry. A cursory examination reveals that the Bawo board can usefully serve as a counting apparatus. No evidence is available yet as to the board being put to this purpose, but it would be superior to the abacus in a number of respects.
Of mathematical interest are the Bawo/Oware's "non-stopping" moves. This is applicable in the two-row versions. Even in Bawo, there is a move called kutakata which seems to go on forever without stopping. Another interesting mathematical question is the solving of the simpler two-row variants of the game, where it is possible to guarantee a win by playing in a certain manner. The information age has not left this ancient game by the wayside. Different versions are available on the World Wide Web.
In sum, Ncombwa should be a pan-African national game! In Malawi, Bawo has been played at district, regional and national levels. It should be a great focal point for exploring the neglected cultural unity of Africa through national and pan-African tournaments and even at the Olympics.