Two men, possibly in their early to mid-fifties, sat across from each other under a shaded tree. Excitement, concentration, and wit were plastered on their faces. Some motorcycles are parked metres away.
They are hurdled over a wooden board whose surface is punctuated by 12 hollows – each containing a cluster of ash-coloured seeds – amid the watchful eyes of an interested audience, who would have loved to be the participants.
But for such a friendly game, the atmosphere is extremely fierce.
Johnson Adeoye, wearing a blue shirt with yellow stripes, looked up to acknowledge greetings from the small but boisterous crowd. And like a grandmaster, he dipped his hand into one of the hollows in the brownish wooden board to pick up some ball-like seeds.
In a swift anti-clockwise move, he deftly began to drop seeds in the adjoining hollows, emptying them in a frenzy as he raced to victory [8-0] against Adebayo Ademola in a cozy evening at Otutu Street in the ancient town of Ile-Ife, Osun State.
The game is Ayò Olọ́pọ́n – as it is referred to in the Yoruba-dominated South West of Nigeria – the African board game on a quest for Olympic recognition.
In the literal sense, Ayò Olọ́pọ́n means “the game of the wooden board” in Yoruba, one of the widely spoken languages in Nigeria.
Across the country, it is known by different names. Among the Igbos, it is called “Ncho,” or “Nchoro” and Nsa Isong among the Efiks
Played in many parts of Africa, it is similar to the Endodoi of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania and belongs to the family of Mancala board games.
In some West African countries like Ghana, Senegal, etc, and in the Caribbean, the strategy game is known as Oware and Wari respectively. In East Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros, Malawi, and some areas of DR Congo and Burundi, it is called Bao.
The different names seem to point to one thing – difficulty in singling out an ethnic group or country as the originators of the game.
But in tracing its origin, a historian, Dr Akin Ogundiran, did not mince words in pinpointing where it emanated from.
It is pervasive among the Niger-Congo peoples – from the edge of the Sahara in Senegal to the rainforest of Central Africa and from the coast of West Africa to the beaches of East Africa, the historian noted.
“We can make a strong case that the game originated from the ancestors of the present Niger-Congo-speaking peoples, the largest language family in Africa,” the professor of Africana Studies, Anthropology and History at the University of North Carolina, told Channels Television.
“The game spread with the expansion of those ancestors from their savanna homeland (present-day Senegal-Mali-Mauritania boundaries) into the rainforest between 7,000 and 3,000 years ago,” he said, explaining that “it reflects advanced cognitive and quantitative skill sets about the time that many people in West Africa (proto-Niger-Congo ancestors) began to adopt agricultural subsistence, farming communities, and settled life, 7,000-5,000 years ago.
“It is a game that every country in Sub-Saharan Africa should elevate to the status of national heritage. As we know, many social innovations and even technology began with games.”
Beyond the African shores, it is played in the Caribbean – taken by enslaved Africans during the Middle Passage – where it is known as Wari and is played by millions of people.
While the historian has tried to explain the origin of the game, enthusiasts like Babatunde Olatunji, say there are inadequate records pointing it back to Africa and fear that the continent could lose this “part of our cultural heritage”.
“I can foresee in the nearest future, we may not be too surprised to have seen history being rewritten and somebody proving to us that it does not also emanate from us,” Babatunde stated in a phone interview, noting that even the little research about the game was carried out by people outside the continent, he added.
A Talent From God
Like millions who enjoy the game, Johnson, who hails from Osun State, told Channels Television that he started playing it at a young age.
The board game has gotten him fame having won many laurels including three gold medals at the 20th National Sports Festival held recently in Edo State.
“I was 13 years old when I started playing the game. I did not learn it from anyone,” Johnson, who became the first gold medalist when the game was introduced at the 11th National Sports Festival, held in Imo State in 1998, said.
“One day, I just called my dad and told him, ‘Let me play this game with you!’ And I defeated my dad 12-0.”
“I did not have any coach to train with. My talent is from Almighty God. Nobody trained me. In my family compound back then, they played the game.”
How It Is Played
The version of the game played by Johnson might be a popular one in Nigeria but in several nations and ethnic groups in the country, there are slight variations.
For the Yorubas, Ogundiran noted that two types of materials – a twelve-hole rectangular wooden box and 48 Ayò seeds, which are now made of marble or plastic-like seeds, are used for the game.
“Four seeds are placed in each hole. Only two people can play the game, and each player will have six holes on his/her side-24 seeds for each player. Two individuals take turns to play the game by distributing the seeds from one hole into the other holes in an anti-clockwise direction,” he explained, describing it as “what we call sowing. If there are three or fewer Ayò seeds on the opponent’s side, the player collects those.
“The players take turns to play until they exhaust the seeds, or it becomes practically impossible for one of the players to make any move. The goal of the game is to capture as many seeds of the opponent as possible. The player with the most number of seeds wins the game.”
A ‘Central Role’
Beyond the joy of victory, the game is an integral part of the lifestyle in most communities.
In many towns and villages, it is a common sight to see people gather under shaded trees in the evenings playing it while trying to cool off after the day’s job.
At other times, the elderly converge at palm wine joints, engaging each other in the game.
Aside from adults, children and teenagers also have a thing for it. In most rural areas, kids of varying ages usually gather in village squares to prove their mettle.
It also offers more than recreational values – as most seemingly mundane things in the continent have spiritual undertones. This explains why it is an integral part of festivals in some communities. The game is one of the highlights of the Osun Osogbo Festival in Osun State where winners go home with various prizes.
“The spirituality of Ayò Olọ́pọ́n derives from its central role in our history. It connects us to the past and the deified ancestors who invented the game,” added Ogundiran, who is also the Editor-In-Chief of the African Archaeological Review.
“In another vein, Ayò Olọ́pọ́n is a game where the character (ìwà), patience (ìfarabàlẹ̀), insight (ojú-inú), and deep thought (àròjinlẹ̀) are molded. Those who excel in the game are called ọ̀ta (the knowledgeable ones), and the losers are òpè (the ignorant). The game shows how much premium the Yoruba and other African groups place on knowledge and competitiveness.”
“So, to understand [some]aspects of African social organization, recreation culture, and modalities of social interaction, the codification of work and leisure, we need to pay attention to Ayò Olọ́pọ́n,” Professor Ogundiran explained.
Like many traditional African sports – Dambe, Kokowa, and Langa, etc – the game does not have the glamour and interest generated by games like football, basketball, and tennis to name a few.
Observers believe it has not been given the recognition it deserves and may go into extinction.
“I was more concerned at some point in time because the game is no longer visible as it was before,” the Osun lawmaker, added. “I hardly see people playing Ayò Olọ́pọ́n.”
According to him, if Americans are laying claim to basketball while Europeans/Brazilians see football as their own game, nothing stops Africans from pitching their tents with it and other traditional sports.
As part of efforts to raise more consciousness about the game, he now hosts a yearly competition in the South West state and his major focus is younger people whom he believes should tap into the potentials of the board game.
“Ayò Olọ́pọ́n can be well-branded and made to be so attractive to take a fair share of the multi-billion-dollar board game industry,” he said.
With Nigeria’s unemployment rising from 27.1% to 33.3% in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to the latest data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in mid-March 2021, he believes rebranding the board game will make it a money-spinner.
“I see it as a game that can create jobs. Can you imagine we have a league on Ayò Olọ́pọ́n! Those who come to play, we have to kit them,” the lawmaker explained. “So, people [can] make materials and make money. You can have caps branded as Ayò Olọ́pọ́n; your favourite teams, you can have their T-shirts; you can have their caps.”
Already, it is played in various competitions at local and international levels. At the National Sports Festival – Nigeria’s “Olympics,” it features prominently and is a medal-winning sport and it registered as Ayo.
The Chief Whip of the Osun Assembly also dreams big for it.
“One of my wishes is to see the game being played in the Olympics someday,” Babatunde, who represents Ife North further stated, hoping that it would also be “credited as a game that came from Africa; to be seen as Africa’s contribution to the world.”
For people like Babatunde who wish to see the game and other traditional sports in competitions as big as the Olympics, there are hurdles ahead.
Before a sport is approved for the quadrennial sports fiesta, it must be vetted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and there are myriads of rules set by the 99-member body.
First, the sport must be governed by an International Federation (IF).
“This is required in order to conform to the Rules of the Olympic Charter, the World Anti-Doping Code as well as the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of Manipulation of Competitions,” read a statement on the Olympics website.
“It must also be practised widely across the world and meet various criteria,” another post on the Olympics website, explained.
“After that, the IOC‘s Executive Board may recommend that a recognised sport be added to the Games programme, if the IOC Session approves it.”
The multiplicity of traditional games in Africa is also a big challenge in pushing indigenous sports to more international competitions, the Nigerian Traditional Sports Federation, explained.
According to the federation, harmonisation of the different African indigenous games is one of the first steps among many in the quest to have these sports feature at the international level.
“Let us come together in Africa to agree on the sports we want to sell,” the secretary-general of the federation’s caretaker committee, Ahmed Libata, said in an interview.
“Traditional sports are practiced everywhere; they [games] are in every country and every country has their own peculiar sports.”
Some traditional sports like Langa, Kokowa, and Ayò Olọ́pọ́n are predominant in many countries in Africa, he said the same cannot be said of other games which are peculiar to certain areas.
In a bid to resolve this, he noted the federation had resorted to decentralising traditional sports competitions in the country, limiting them to areas where they are dominant.
“That is why we have to [organise] maybe Ayo [competition in Ibadan; Kokowa in Kaduna; Dambe in Katsina; Langa in Gombe; Abula maybe in Delta or Bayelsa,” Libata stressed. “We have to at least try to decentralize them so that they will be easier to organize.”
“So, when we find that the athletes [for a particular traditional game] are predominant in a zone, we try to put a competition in that zone so we can bring out our talented youths,” he said.
Continuing, he said the federation and the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development are adopting a grassroots approach in scouting for talents.
“I know they (talents) are everywhere. That is why we are trying to decentralise some of these sports in our zones,” the scribe said, insisting that traditional games are quite popular especially among the younger generation but need branding.
“If you see some of the games that make it to the Olympics, they are just traditional games that have been packaged and branded well,” Libata stated.
“And I see some of these games [traditional games] as what can be put on the global sphere; we will package them and brand them so well.”
‘No Sponsor To Support Us’
Johnson, who has featured in many Ayò competitions, also agrees that the game needs “promoters”.
He recounted that prior to the All African Games in 2003, an exhibition tournament was held for the game as part of efforts to include it in the competition but “we have not heard anything again!”
“It is painful because this Ayo game is played all over the world. It is played in Afghanistan; it is played in Turkey; they play the game in Brazil, it is played in Trinidad and Tobago.
“And there is no sponsor to support us. That is the biggest challenge we are facing now,” the player, who featured in his first competition in 1987, told Channels Television.
“Our Traditional Sports Federation in Nigeria is working to ensure that in the next All African Games, Ayo would be introduced. I would be happy if the game is introduced to the Olympics or Commonwealth Games because my plan is to play it at the festival (Commonwealth Games or Olympics; All African Games).
“The game needs more promoters and sponsors because the game is played all over the world. We need help to popularise the game.”
He takes the game as a hobby, but said: “We are making money through the game,” and urged Nigerians to “show more interest in the game because it is easy to play”.
Away from the need to brand the game and other African traditional sports, Ogundiran, a former lecturer at the Department of History at Florida International University, Miami in the US blamed “colonial mentality” for the seeming lack of interest in local sports among Africans especially the younger generation.
He faulted Africa’s mode of socialisation, wondering why youths should respect their cultural heritage if the older ones see it as nothing.
“If Ayò Olọ́pọ́n is played in schools and there are inter-class and inter-school competitions, I am sure the game will not lose its relevance. We play draft and chess; why not play a game that speaks to the deep-time African history and culture?” the lecturer wondered.
“Africans suffer from a colonial mentality. We tend to neglect what makes us human and embrace what dehumanizes us.”
‘Potential For Learning’
Ogundiran is not the only one to have linked the board game and other traditional sports to learning institutions.
Research has connected African indigenous games to improved cognitive, arithmetic, and general problem-solving.
Dr Rebecca Bayeck, who holds dual-Ph.D. in Learning Design and Technology and Comparative International Education, reviewed five African board games while trying to see if they held any educational potential.
Her research – A Review of Five African Board Games: Is There Any Educational Potential? – was published in the Cambridge Journal of Education. She found out that playing Oware, the name it is called in Ghana and other places, teaches strategic thinking and arithmetic. She explained that it also teaches patience, spatial thinking, negation, and decision-making skills among others.
Findings from the study also suggested that the mechanics of the game showed that it could prove handy in biology. Just as the cell, Oware is characterised by a series of cyclical, repetitive movements guided by the mechanics of the game. The Oware mechanics, she continued, can be used in explaining the concept of the cell life cycle.
In his study, The Use of Indigenous Games in the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics, Professor Mogege Mosimege found out that African traditional games can change the teaching and learning of the subject.
“They do not only make it possible for learners to engage in activities that are enjoyable,” the South African lecturer wrote, “they have a great potential to help open avenues for the connection between concrete and abstract concept, between classroom environments and activities outside the classroom.”