Minnesota Humanities Center

Mancala Gameworlds and the Afrofuturist Orbit

Posted February 19, 2021

In celebration of Black History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on black history and culture, as well as on broad issues of racial and social justice. Like a good conversation with friends after a good meal, we have not attempted to steer the conversation in any direction but instead will seek to enjoy the richness of the ideas. Please therefore curl up with a warm blanket during this extended cold snap and enjoy the conversation with us.

I managed to meet prize-winning Macalester College novelist/professor Marlon James last year following the publication of his epic fantasy saga “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.”  It’s the first of a planned trilogy in the Afrofuturist orbit: the multidisciplinary movement to imagine or reimagine human technological, social, and political futures and pasts through black speculative cultural lenses.  The Hollywood screen adaptation rights have already been sold to film star Michael B. Jordan of “Creed,” “Fruitvale Station,” and “Black Panther” fame. 

Black Leopard, Red Wolf caught my researcher’s eye with an exchange in the opening chapter between the narrator and his father that alludes very specifically to the ancient African mancala boardgame bawo or bao, variants of which I and my wife Serena have been tracking around the African diaspora over the past decade. 

Along the away, I became part of a team of scholars working with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on a proposed (but unfortunately derailed) major exhibition on the artifacts, iconography, and ethos of this global game tradition.  While tracking the tradition’s warri variants in the West Indies, I gave a talk on Antigua’s national radio about this “African chess” complex—as European travelers once referred to it.

Looking back now, I realize that these mancala linkages might resonate with curious audiences and contemporary gamers of various stripes, including fantasy world fans of “Game of Thrones,” which is routinely cited as an influence on Marlon James, and fans of James himself.  Moreover, I think MHC readers will appreciate the way that mancala connects Afrodiasporic pasts, presents, and futures across geographical and cultural gulfs, while maintaining its crucial role as an arbiter of human politics and human play.

My ongoing project focuses both on the Afro-Asian tradition of mancala (an Arabic umbrella term) and the interlinking Indo-European tradition of chess. As such, the project encompasses an Old World milieu of pre-modern playworlds that also includes Go, Xianqui, Shogi, Draughts (checkers) and Merels (“Mills” and Nine-Men’s Morris variants). 

These “mindsport” boardgames have served their host cultures since bygone times as what medieval Christendom and Islam both called “mirrors for princes”: miniaturized kingship-training battlefields or analogues for real world strategic encounters between whole communities and civilizations. In our day, these games offer us a way to reimagine–through non-Western eyes–the origins, development, and dialectical tensions of modern imperialist systems and anti-imperialist struggles.

More pointedly, five hundred years of the transoceanic slave trade carried West, East, and Southern African slaves around the globe, along with their “count and capture” varieties of the mancala game family. Alongside chess (itself also non-Western in origin),  mancala variants–Yoruba ayo games as well as Akan and Mande warri variations–still survive in the New World, vibrantly in such island-nations as Antigua and Barbados, and in muted form in St. Lucia, the Virgin Islands, and even in parts of the United States.

Today, such offshoots of the ancient Afro-Asian mancala tradition occupy, and help to shape, a fascinating gameworld/realworld nexus: a space where metaphor, allegory, algorithm, computer simulation, and cognitive science interact with rapidly morphing trans-American beliefs about fate and freedom, competition and chance, personal agency and environmental determinism. Resilient New World mancala variants now vie in public spaces and on private screens with the video games that have become integral parts of a global media culture rivaling Hollywood in revenue and influence. Though less directly than in James’s riveting tale, these African mindsports constitute disruptive “exotic” elements in a twenty-first century hyper-capitalist complex of “games of empire” and other virtual conquests. 

As Serena and I discovered, different survival strategies and tactics among the mancala players have led to different outcomes. In Antigua, governmental support from the national Ministry of Culture and the Museum of Antigua/Barbuda funds highly publicized warri contests, organized by a National Warri Association, which promote warri as an element of national identity. Schools use the game as an educational tool for mathematics training and cognitive development, and skilled artisans continue to produce hand-carved warri boards with symbolic designs that preserve vital elements of Old World African cultural identities. 

In Barbados, which once rivaled Antigua in its elaborate cultivation of the African game traditions, players’ groups have eschewed government support in favor of fierce player independence. But they have suffered, as a consequence, more limited institutional recognition and have become increasingly dependent on a shrinking pool of devoted elderly players and gameboard carvers, while Barbadian youth are drawn instead to Western computer and digitized board game amusements. In St. Lucia, where a colonial history oscillating between French and British control once fostered competing Yoruba-derived (“French”) and Akan-derived (“English”) warri variants, the game has almost disappeared save in rural enclaves and coastal fishing villages—for reasons that remain a puzzle. 

Back across the Atlantic, in postcolonial Africa, governmental initiatives to preserve and reinvigorate “indigenous games” as elements of reconfigured national identities have borne impressive fruit. On Kenya’s Swahili Coast, for example, mancala traditions have sustained what most observers consider their most strategically sophisticated and competitively institutionalized forms, in the game variant known as bao/bawo. It is there that the novelistic explorations of Marlon James’s Afrofuturist fantasy world are grounded.

In South Africa, in response to Thabo Mbeki’s call to “rediscover what was lost by indigenous people of Africa through colonialism,” a renaissance of traditional African strategy games has promoted the local mancala variant, moruba, and a related Merels variant, morabaraba, through annual Indigenous Games Competitions, sponsored publicly by the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture, and privately by Mind Sports South Africa. As humanities enthusiasts should appreciate, South African visual artists have correlated ancient mancala gameboard designs with interrelated proverb traditions (in Venda, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Tsonga languages), producing stunning multimedia artworks. 

Seen through lenses like these, Marlon James’s “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” opens a densely imagined fantasy borderland between ancient playworld feats of cognitive brilliance and real-world features of strategic interchange that invite us to reconfigure our conceptions of power, autonomy, and cultural history in the African world.  Reading his work gamely enough might help us reconfigure our conceptions of Black History Month as well—as an arena not just for historical programming but also for the playful exercise of our cultural memories and speculative imaginations.

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