Games and society

The only leisure activity [in Africa] with a history stretching back beyond European contact is the board game often known in West Africa as mankala. Played in ancient Egypt, where a stone board of c. 1500 BC has been found, the game appears to have spread to other speakers of Afroasiatic languages and thence throughout the continent, except its southern tip, changing its form in complex ways. Everywhere it was seen as a test of intelligence. Legend said that Sunjata played it for his life against his rival for power in Mali. Shyaam’s ritual statuette shows him with the mankala board that he allegedly introduced when founding the Kuba kingdom. Being African, the game was played quickly, publicly, socially, noisily. Islam frowned on it and replaced it by the more sedate dara, a form of draughts, while the Ethiopian nobility either played an especially complicated variant or preferred chess. Chess was the game of a stratified society, with unequal pieces and the objective of destroying the opposing forces. In mankala all pieces were of equal value and the aim was to capture the opposing pieces and add them to one’s own. It was the game of a society dedicated to building up its numbers.

John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent, pg. 99

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