Mathematics and games have long histories, and they have been found to be intertwined quite often in terms of the strategies needed to win some of these games. The history of mathematics has been traced back as far as 20,000 B.C to a tiny fishing village in the Congo. The artefact, the fibula of some large mammal, has unique notchings on it, indicating tally marks or some reference to an organization of numbers. It is still up for debate as to what these marks could mean. However, The Ishango Bone, which now resides in a museum in Brussels, Belgium, is an agreed-upon starting point for the birth of mathematics.
Africa is also where one of the oldest games, Mancala, can be found. It’s origins trace back to Matara (Eritrea) and Yeha (Ethiopia), around A.D. 700. There are well over 100 variants of the game worldwide. The game has strong agricultural nods, as it is basically about sowing and capturing seeds. It is a game that can be played anywhere, even just using pebbles and rocks. In fact, most purchased versions of this game have polished gemstones.
Here is how to play the most popular version of the game:
1. The Mancala board is made up of two rows of six holes, or pits, each. If you don’t have a Mancala board handy, substitute an empty egg carton.
2. Four pieces—marbles, chips, or stones—are placed in each of the 12 holes. The color of the pieces is irrelevant.
3. Each player has a store (called a Mancala) to the right side of the Mancala board. Cereal bowls work well for this purpose if you’re using an egg carton.
4. The game begins with one player picking up all of the pieces in any one of the holes on their side.
5. Moving counter-clockwise, the player deposits one of the stones in each hole until the stones run out
6. If you run into your own store, deposit one piece in it. If you run into your opponent’s store, skip it.
7. If the last piece you drop is in your own store, you get a free turn.
8. If the last piece you drop is in an empty hole on your side, you capture that piece and any pieces in the hole directly opposite.
9. Always place all captured pieces in your store.
10. The game ends when all six spaces on one side of the Mancala board are empty.
11. The player who still has pieces on his side of the board when the game ends capture all of those pieces.
12. Count all the pieces in each store. The winner is the player with the most pieces.
Since this game is simply a counting game, it is accessible to even younger children, and for them to start to employ strategies to win the game.
Here are some other math games that have originated in Africa:
Butterfly (from Mozambique)
While this game often has beautifully designed boards, the simplicity of this game allows for common pencil and paper versions where two equal-sized triangles are joined together. The game is played similarly to checkers, but the jumping and movement rules now occur through the 19 intersections. The game also gets kids to think about paths and networks.
Dara (from Nigeria)
This game has been around for several hundred years and having a few variations with its name (Dera or Doki). While it can be played in the sand, it also has elaborate game boards. But the most common way to play is with a standard 5 × 6 rectangle and each player having 12 pieces to place on the board, which can obviously be drawn by hand.
Players take turns placing pieces of their color. If they make a three-in-a-row, then they remove one of their opponent’s pieces. The game continues until the first player who cannot make a three-in-a-row.
The wonderful thing about the math/strategy games that originated in Africa is that they can be played anywhere with the minimal of resources. As such, I encourage you and your students to play these games in your classroom. You will have lots of fun and also encourage global conversations about games!
Next time: Math Games From Around the World: Asia and Europe