In almost any country in Africa, if you encounter groups of people huddled over a board, the chances are they’ll be playing Bao.
hen it rains at Ruhengeri, in Rwanda’s Mountains Of The Moon, it really rains. I’d seen the gorillas. Now I was soaked and tired and killing time. So, when in Rome – oops, Ruhengeri – why not go local? I sat down with the off-duty gorilla guides and learned to play Bao.
I’d seen Bao (Swahili for “board”) played all over Africa: boisterous, macho males hunched over a wooden board with holes carved into it, dexterously moving small round pieces (kete) from hole to hole according to some mysterious, unfathomable principle.
Played 3,000 years ago in Egypt, it may even be the world’s oldest board game. There are at least 200 regional variations of Bao, which is also called Mancala, Wari and numerous other local names.
Bao boards are available in markets all over Africa. Or, you can do what the local kids sometimes do: just scoop out some holes in the dirt and start playing.
There is no element of chance in Bao. Theoretically, in every position you should be able to calculate the best move. If you’re good, as my thirsty tutors discovered to their delight, Bao is more than merely a pleasant diversion from the rains. It’s a ticket to unlimited free beer.
Eventually, as always in East Africa, the sun broke through the clouds. It was time for my hangover and I moved on. New African experiences and fresh Bao opponents lay ahead.
The road wound along terraced mountainsides toward the Rwanda-Uganda frontier. As I strode forward, passport and carnet in hand, I noticed that the immigration officials were huddled over a board. Great, I thought. We can smooth out the formalities with a game!
But they ignored me. Clearly, they weren’t about to do any work at all until their game was finished. I stood humble and polite and waited for over an hour. Sometimes it can take a long time to end a game…..of Scrabble!
The Rules of Bao (as played at Ruhengeri, Rwanda)
The board has 32 holes, 16 on each side. Place the 64 playing pieces or kete in the holes as in the image.
Object of the Game
To capture your opponent’s kete. The player with the most kete at the end wins.
Either player may start. When moving, you can only pick up 2 or more kete. To begin, pick up all four kete from any of the holes on your own side of the board. Moving anti-clockwise, drop one into each adjacent hole. If you’ve picked up from hole 1, you would drop a kete into holes 2, 3, 4 and 5.
If your last kete drops into an occupied hole (in our example hole 5), you pick up all the kete in that hole. Starting with the next hole anti-clockwise (6) continue dropping kete into holes. Eventually you will be able to capture some of your opponent’s kete.
If your last kete falls into an occupied front row hole which lies directly opposite your opponent’s occupied front row hole and occupied back row hole, you can capture. Pick up the kete from your opponent’s occupied front row hole and occupied back row hole. Redistribute these kete on your side of the board. Drop the first kete into the first hole anti-clockwise from the hole that you just emptied to begin the capture, and continue anti-clockwise. If your last kete from hand falls into an occupied hole, continue moving and hopefully capturing!
End of Turn
When your last kete falls into an empty hole, your turn ends and your opponent plays.
If you wish, you can move kete from the holes shaded in the diagram in a clockwise direction. But you can only do this if the move ends in a capture. Captured kete are distributed in the normal, anti-clockwise direction.
End of Play and Winning
The game is over when your opponent cannot move because he has no holes containing two or more kete. You’ll have to have more kete than him, so you win!
Robert Irwin has travelled extensively around Africa. He works as a freelance writer based in London, where he is now learning to play Scrabble.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Four: Summer 1998. Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)