Mankala is believed to be one of the oldest games in the world. It appears in ancient Hindu mythology, is enjoyed in Mongolia and the West Indies, celebrated in Indonesia and Hawaii and is played across the Middle East.
Mankala has a very special place in society across Africa where it has regional names:
Aweet – in Sudan by the Dinka tribe
Bao – Tanzania, southern part of Malawi and west towards Angola
Kombe - northern Kenyan coast and on the small Kenyan island of Lamu
Mankala - Egypt, Tanzania, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zaire and Malawi
Mongale - along the east coast and in Mombasa
Mongola- upper Congo
Soro and coro - northern Uganda and a derivation in areas of Zimbabwe
Wari, or owari - Nigeria, Niger and Ghana.
Weri – Uganda by the Jopadhola
It is believed the game originated in one place. Sociologist and researchers are still not sure where this place is exactly, but it may have been traders who took the game with them on their long journeys and introduced it to new communities. Today the game reflects the communities in which it is played. In some communities it is only played by men, in others it is an entertainment for the children and the elderly. In some communities it is played with deliberate speed to create confusion and in others it is a pensive, thoughtful skill that wins. The game, its name and its regional features are expressions of the values that are important to a different groups of people.
How to play the game:
1. Two players sit opposite each other.
2. In front of them they have two parallel rows of twelve holes – two lines of six. These can be scooped out of the ground, made from a wooden board, carved out of stone or even empty egg cartons – anything that allows for two rows of six holes.
3. You will each need a cup to place to the right of your row of holes to be used as your store.
4. Each player has twenty-four ‘stones’, ‘seeds’ or counters. They will all have the same value so it doesn’t matter if they are different in color or shape. These can be actual stones or seeds, marbles, buttons or anything that has smooth edges and will easily fit into the holes.
5. The players distribute their counters evenly into their own six holes (four counter per hole), lined up in front of them.
6. The players choose who is to start the game.
7. Player A picks all the counters in one of their own holes, emptying the hole.
8. Player A then starts, in a counter-clockwise direction, to place each of the seeds in their hand in a hole – one per hole, and not skipping a hole – until all the counters have been placed in a hole. This is called ‘sowing’ the seeds.
9. When Player A gets to their cup in the sequence of placing the counters in their holes, they place a counter in the cup as if it was a hole.
10. If Player A gets to the cup of their opponent, they skip the cup and continues along the row, placing the counters in holes.
11. The idea of the game is to get all the counters in your personal cup (to capture or ‘eat’ your opponent’s counters).
12. Player A goes to ‘sleep’ and Player B then has a turn, doing the same thing, but again using their cup as a hole in the sequence, and their opponent’s cup is missed out.
13. If the last counter in your handful is placed in your own cup, you get another go (a chain move).
14. If you put your last counter in your handful in an empty hole, your get to put that counter and the one in the opposite hole, which belongs to your opponent, in your cup.
15. The game continues until one row is completely empty.
16. All the counters in the row that is not empty is emptied into the cup of the player whose row it is.
17. The winner is the person with the most counters in their cup.
There are a range of variations to this game ranging from the name of the game, the name of the items involved to the number of holes or pits or even missing out on certain holes in the sowing process and even the direction of play. These variations will be mostly regional.
Although the game varies across the continent and even the world, it is a wonderful source of entertainment and enjoyment with the simplest of rules and such basic tools. It brings people together. In some of the challenging environments in Africa, it is in mankala that people find joy, laughter and a spirit of community.