Although it looks simple, Mancala is not a game of luck but of skill, calculation and strategy.
Mancala is one of the oldest known two-player board games in the world, believed to have been created in ancient times.
There is archeological and historical evidence that dates Mancala back to the year 700 AD in East Africa. Ancient Mancala boards were found in Aksumite settlements in Matara, Eritrea, and Yeha, Ethiopia.
However, the oldest Mancala boards were found in An Ghazal, Jordan in the floor of a Neolithic dwelling. The board was carved out of limestone bearing a striking resemblance to modern-day Mancala boards. This board dates back to 5870 ± 240 BC.
It is widely believed that Arab traders brought the game with them when traveling and it quickly spread all over Africa and the world, but it is uncertain to know where the game first originated.
The word Mancala is derived from the Arabic word Naqala (na-ka-la), which means “to move” or “to transfer”
The rules of who is allowed to play vary from place to place. In certain areas, it is seen as a man’s game, and in others areas, men don’t play, making it a female game.
Carved Wood Mancala Board with Handle
Villagers playing a mancala game in Yagba, Nigeria. Photography by August Udoh
Although mancala games have educational value in teaching arithmetic skills, some places forbid boys or girls from playing. For example, The Wolof of Senegal traditionally forbid non-initiated boys from playing. The Dogon of Mali do not encourage children to play mancala for fear that it will bring misfortune to the village, but adults playing the game seemingly don’t carry the same risk.
Mancala 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 menstrual cycle, she will seclude herself in her home for seven days as part of her initiation, which includes playing mancala.
Nighttime brings out the spirits. At night mancala players leave their game boards and pieces outside for the spirits’ entertainment. Anyone playing at night takes extreme risks in attracting malicious spirits and offending them with mortal play. It is believed that an individual’s soul could be stolen, they could be cursed with sickness, their mother could die, if they were to play during the time the spirits are active. However, 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 entice 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.
The number of pieces used to play is very symbolic. Typically, 48 pieces are used, which in a large majority of West African societies is a traditionally a sacred number.
Mancala 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. Single seeds are called “women” or “widows”, two seeds are a “married couple”, other numbers of seeds are “chiefs”, “children”, “cattle”, etc.
In the Western region of Africa, the land of the dead and ancestors is also widely thought to lie somewhere to the west. The mancala board is to be 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.
Young boys playing traditional mancala (bao) game with holes dug in the beach sand (Malawi 1966).