An old Congolese man on his haunches nods knowingly. Seated on the dusty smooth ground on the banks of the Congo River (how can people crouch for hours?) in Kisangani (destination for the Congo River boat) under the cool of a tree, I know my fate. He utters a few words in his local language in a rumbling voice so deep the sounds seem to emanate from the earth below. His beaming smile and sharp mind illuminate the shaded area, glistening white teeth against a wizened dark face. The swelling crowd (that started at none) laugh, my hesitant moves no match for his decades of experience. After a couple of bad losses I am receiving assistance from the crowd and at one point even a pointer from the opponent but to no avail – Mancala is a game of skill and experience.
Mancala appear to be a little like chess or go, the rules are easy enough to grasp but the strategy to be a good player takes a lifetime to gather. Even after a few months of playing in many villages, I am little more than a novice.
Mancala is one of my most abiding memories of a year in Africa. Especially in West and central Africa, this game is played everywhere. Whether played with seeds on a carved wooden board with seeds or with pebbles on a makeshift board with holes dug in the ground, Mancala is an enthralling game.
While the rules of Mancala appear to vary from nation to nation (as does its name which include awale and kalah), the basic game is played as follows. Mancala is played on a board with two rows of six shallow holes, and two larger holes on each side of the board. You own the holes nearest to you while your opponent owns the holes on the opposite side. The large hole in front or to the right of you is called the mancala.
The object of the game is to capture as many seeds as possible with the winning player having the most seeds at the end of the game wins.
To play, a player selects one of their holes and distributes the seeds anticlockwise in a move called sowing. Distribution of stones wraps around the board, placing a stone in the player’s mancala along the way, but not placing one in the opponent’s mancala (if the stones get that far).
If the last stone placed in a hole lands in your mancala, you get another turn. Otherwise it is your opponent’s turn. Additionally, if the last stone placed lands in one of your holes that is empty, and the hole opposite contains stones, you steal your opponent’s stones. Your last stone and your opponent’s stones are placed in your mancala, and it is then your opponent’s turn. General protocol doesn’t allow the physical counting of seeds in a hole so judgement is important.
The game is over when one player is out of stones, or when a player has more than half the stones in the game.
Mancala is a great introduction to village life in Africa and brokered a number of special moments journeying across Africa. My win-loss record through the year was shameful but the memories stay deeply treasured. My Mancala board bought from the Ivory Coast (home of the world’s largest church) remains ready for play, though players in Australia are trickier to find!