Morabaraba? Get on board!

26 September 2002

“I’ll take this one and I’ll hit you”, says 12-year-old Walter. Kagiso shakes his head: “Ag man, that’s an old trick. Now you think you can fly anywhere with those cows.”

Flying cows can mean only one thing – war has broken out inside this classroom at St Enda’s Community College in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. But Walter and Kagiso are not fighting, at least not in the physical sense. Instead, these two youngsters are engaged in the centuries-old battle of morabaraba, Africa’s oldest board game.

For all those who thought that board games were lost forever to the Playstation generation, young players like Walter and Kagiso, who are self-confessed addicts, are an encouraging sight.

But, while Walter may be leading this game, he learnt his savvy skills from his opponent, whom he refers to as his “master”. Kagiso, on the other hand, acquired his morabaraba prowess from his brother. Apparently the skills for this game, which is believed to be older than the pyramids, have been passed from generation to generation, from parents to grandmothers, from brothers to sisters, for thousands of years throughout Africa.

And it’s still got the right moves. According to a 1996 poll by the Sowetan newspaper, about 40% of South Africans play the game.

Egyptian origins

Anthropologists and archaeologists believe that morabaraba originated from an ancient Egyptian game known as mancala. The flying cows that Kagiso and Walter are tactically manoeuvring around the board are actually tokens based on Africa’s traditional supreme symbol of wealth – the cow. In Ghana, the game was used to teach kids how to count, add and subtract.

And morabaraba by any other name is just as sweet. In the Eastern Cape it is called mlabalaba and in Limpopo Province as mefuvha. In Zimbabwe it is called tsoro and in Angola it is referred to as mbau.

Morabaraba has even given the African Renaissance a boost – morabaraba fever is catching on fast worldwide, and the game is now played Europe and Asia.

In 1996 the South African Wargames Union was invited to send a South African morabaraba team to Thailand to attend the Traditional Wargames Championships. When the team arrived, loaded with 50 000 board games, they distributed them free to Taiwanese locals.

The next day proved to be somewhat of a cultural surprise. Police had to be called in to calm down the thousands of people clamouring outside the championship venue for more of the board games, of which there were none.

Legends and myths

Still, no one really knows when the first morabaraba game was played, says Colin Webster, president of the SA War Games Union. “It’s truly an African game and we are trying to take it back to its roots. But the history of the game reaches far back into antiquity,” he says. “It was certainly played in ancient Egypt about 3 000 years ago. I think morabaraba has been around for a very long time, for as long as anyone can remember anyway. But it’s not dependent on any written history.”

A plethora of legends and myths surrounds the game. A favourite is that African chiefs selected the best morabaraba players to serve as advisers on their traditional councils. Webster concurs, and says that the game is deeply rooted in the concept of teaching young warriors how to do cattle raids.

According to the rules of the game, two players have 12 cows each and play on a wooden board ringed with 24 circles. The ultimate aim is to take as many of your opponent’s cows as possible while moving your cows forward and towards your opponent’s back row.

Provincial and national colours

The game was recognised as a traditional African wargame in 1996 by South Africa’s Department of Sport and Recreation and the National Sports Commission. Players receive provincial and national colours.

“Now that the game is recognised, players can be rewarded for the excellence of their play”, says Webster. “It has developed a lot since then and it does make the sports pie bigger. But in terms of development, it is always difficult for new kids on the block to catch up with people who have been participating in sport for a long time.”

Kids like Buthi, a Grade 8 pupil, drew the board on his street in Soweto and played with rocks. But that was a long time ago, he says, and now morabaraba bores him. “I don’t know why people play this game. Man, I like soccer. It’s so much more entertaining.”

But Webster believes that the accessibility of the game is what entrenches its popularity. “You don’t need money to play the game; I’ve seen people in Diepkloof play it with pebbles and apple and orange cores. It’s not restrictive, and it’s cheap.”

Every day during their 45-minute break, Walter and Kagiso play morabaraba. “Everyone else plays soccer, but we are using our brains”, says Kagiso. “This game teaches you to think before you make a move. It is just logic. We play it at home. It keeps us off the streets.”

Walter watches as Lawrence saunters into the room proclaiming that morabaraba is just not cool. As Lawrence settles down to a game of draughts, in which tokens can only be moved diagonally, Walter looks on scornfully. “Man, in morabaraba, we can move our cows in any direction. I love morabaraba, I’ll teach my kids one day, and my wife too.”

Walter’s wife may just prove to be tough competition. Women are reputed to rank among the best players, but as rural communities are still patriarchal, females are not encouraged to play. Says Webster: “In rural areas women don’t openly admit to playing. It’s a game that men pride themselves on. But because it’s not a physical game, men and women can sit down together and play it on an equal footing. This can be great in breaking down gender discrimination.”

His organisation has now established a morabaraba club at Athlone Girls High School in Johannesburg. “We would like to see a team at every school, but it’s difficult to say what the future holds. I think that morabaraba offers a lot of value for young people; it gives them a much greater feeling of self-worth.

“It’s a great game, and so is the concept of winning that goes along with it. Players feel a sense of personal gratification and it gives them hope, especially for poor people. I love the game. It really makes you think.

“Some people say it’s nothing more than noughts and crosses, and you can learn the rules in five minutes, but to be great at it, it can take you a lifetime. There’s always a new twist”, Webster adds.

Dorian Love, a computer studies teacher at St Enda’s, says the school’s pupils play the game so earnestly because of a lack of open space at the school. “But I’m for any kind of strategic thinking that exercises the brain”, he says. “It’s nice because the pupils practice general cognitive skills.”

From the look on Kagiso and Walter’s faces, they are happily lost in another world, where tactics and strategies are king, and where they can keep on trying to outmanoeuvre one another.

* In 2005, the South African Wargames Union changed its name to Mind Sports South Africa, and is an affiliate of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).

Source: City of Johannesburg web site