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The Magic of Ncho: A Trip Down Memory Lane with Mancala

Growing up, I was always captivated by watching my brother play video games, but my most memorable gaming experience came from an unexpected source. During a family trip to Nigeria, my cousin introduced me to Mancala, a board game that has been played for thousands of years in cultures around the world. From its origins in Africa to its spread through trade and migration, Mancala is a game that holds cultural significance and teaches strategy and skill. And for me, it’s a beautiful reminder that the simplest things can bring the most joy.

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From Super Mario to Mancala

As a child, I had always been fascinated by games. But not necessarily playing myself, but spectating. I loved watching my older brother get super competitive with his video games. He had all the cool games, too! He’d play games like Duck Hunt on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super Mario on Nintendo 64. But my favorite game to spectate was Age of Empires on our Windows 97 computer. I’d sit there for what felt like hours watching him build his empire from scratch all the way until the end of his last conquest.  I, myself, have never been or considered myself competitive, but really enjoy watching it–the resource building, the strategy planning, the execution of attack, the race to the finish, the wins and the defeats. I was a true streamer’s fan before streaming was a thing.  

But with the many game sessions that I’ve watched my brother play as a kid, one of the most memorable game experiences I’ve ever had was during a family trip to Nigeria in the early 2000s, while traveling with my dad, older brother and sister. It was on a day when my dad had likely left me, my siblings and our cousins in the house while he caught up with his uncle and other family in the area, his hometown (Enugu State). We had enough to entertain ourselves since our cousins were as big on video games as my older brother.  

It was probably after the 99th game of an old Mario game that my cousin and brother finally grew tired of, when my cousin pulled out a wooden board. “Come and sit here” he said, “I want to teach you something.” The wooden board had several carved-out pits on either side and placed it in front of us. It didn’t look like anything special to me. After all, we were moving from playing Mario to playing with a piece of wood. My cousin slowly explained the game mechanism to my older brother while he gave a visual demo of how it would be played. This board had 12 circular indentations or pits, 6 on either side. Each pit had a specific number of pebbles or seeds placed inside. I sat closely, watching my older cousin scoop up these little seeds from one pit and drop or “sow” each seed into the adjoining pits, one seed after the other, moving from one side of the board to the next. It was so simple, and so… calming? It was mesmerizing and I was intrigued.  

A Game with Many Names and Faces

You may know this game as Mancala. Mancala is a family of board games that has been played for thousands of years in various cultures around the world. And it is actually known by several names, depending on the country, region and city: “Oware” in some parts of Ghana, “Ayo Olopon” or “Ayo” in Yorubaland-Nigeria, “Ncho”/”Nchoro”/”Nchorokoto” in Igboland, “Wari” in some parts of West Africa, “Bao” in East Africa, “Sungka” in the Philippines, “Congkak” in Malaysia and Indonesia, “Vai Lung Thlan” in India, “Toguz korgool” in Central Asia, “Mangola” in Madagascar, “Bantumi” in the Caribbean and many other names as well.  

The word “Mancala” comes from the Arabic word “naqala,” which means “to move.” Mancala is played on a board with two rows of six or eight small pits, and a larger pit at each end of the board. The objective of the game is to capture your opponent’s stones or seeds and collect as many as possible in your own pits. Mancala is a game of strategy and skill, and each move can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game. 

The origins of Mancala are unclear, but it is believed to have originated in Africa more than 7,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence of Mancala boards has been found in Egypt and Ethiopia, dating back to around 3000 BCE. Mancala was often played as a way to pass the time and to teach children about math and counting. Over time it has spread to other parts of the world through trade and migration. The two-player game is truly special because of its simplicity and accessibility—all the materials you need to play can be found in nature, such as seeds or stones, and the board or pits can be made in the dirt. 

To me, Ncho is so much more than a board game. It holds cultural significance, a memory, a moment of connection and a bond through a shared experience. And even to this day, my older brother still beats me practically every time we play. But I’ve never really played to win. I play Ncho to be transported back to that trip and that day. Because Ncho, for me, is a beautiful reminder that the simplest things can bring the most joy.  

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of Mancala for yourself, you can check out the latest prices on Amazon here.

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