What games did African kids play?
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Traditional African Games

Mancala board
A mancala board dug into the dirt

November 2016 - People have played games in Africa since before they were really even people, and some of these games are unchanged from hundreds of thousands of years ago. Chimpanzees play tag, and probably the earliest people did too. Chimpanzees also seems to use sticks as dolls, and probably the earliest people did that, too.

One very early game used a small flat piece of wood or bone or clay with two holes in it. You put a leather thong or a piece of vine or a string through each hole and spun the string to wind up the toy; then when you pull the strings out tight the disk spins around and makes a buzzing noise. Sometimes people carved pictures of animals on both sides of the disk so when the buzzer was spinning it would look like the animal was running - very early movies!


How to make your own buzzer toy with clay

In historical times, kids in Africa played jacks with rocks, as they did in other countries and as they do today. They ran races and played hide and seek and jumping games like hopscotch and jumprope. They played marbles, with stones or little balls of clay, or nuts. They played hacky-sack too. They played cats-cradle with string.

African kids liked to play singing and rhythm games too. For instance, they might stand in a circle. The leader would clap a rhythm and then the others would clap the same thing, and then the leader would clap something harder, more complicated, and the others would try to copy it.

Mancala board
Earliest mancala board - Axum, ca. 600 AD

People in Africa also played board games. The best known board game from Africa is Mancala. You can play Mancala just by making two rows of little holes in the ground, and using little rocks or seeds as the playing pieces. Many people did play that way in Africa, and possibly people have played that way since prehistoric times. People often used farming words like "sowing" to describe how you moved in Mancala, so maybe the game got started about the same time as farming, about 8000 BC. But the earliest actual Mancala board comes from Axum (modern Ethiopia), where it was cut into stone about 600 AD.

People took Mancala strategy very seriously in Africa, the way people in Europe and West Asia played chess, and people in China played Go.

Learn by Doing - Play African games
More about Ancient Egyptian games
More about board games
More about medieval Islamic games

Bibliography and further reading about African games:

Egyptian Games
Islamic Games
Ancient Greek Games
Indian Games
Ancient Africa
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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