Bao in Kiswahili, Oware in Akan (Ghana), Gebeta in Ethiopia and Kalah in the US, the board game known as Omweso by the Baganda of Uganda has been around for centuries.
Omweso is known by hundreds of different names and is played in almost every country in the world.
According to the Oware Society of Ghana it is one of the oldest existing board games in the world.
It belongs to the pit and pebbles classification of games, which has been around for over 5,000 years.
According to the website www.oware.org, Time magazine (June 14 1963) tells of the ancient origin of the board game and how widespread it was: “Carved on a vast block of rock in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo are two facing ranks of six shallow pits with larger hollows scooped out at each end.
The same design is carved on columns of the temple at Karnak in Egypt, and it appears in the early tomb paintings in the valley of the Nile.
It is carved in the Theseum in Athens, and in rock ledges along caravan routes of the ancient world.
Today the same pits and hollows are to be found all over Asia and Africa, scratched in the bare earth, carved in rare woods or ivory inlaid with gold.”
In Uganda, Omweso is played on an 8×4 wooden board.
Iam watching a game of Omweso being played in the Sikyomu Drum Makers craft shop owned by Mukwaya in Busega, west of Kampala.
Jamil Bagabba is taking too long to make his move, prompting his opponent to warn in Luganda, “Nkuyege zigulya” (Hurry up or the termites will eat the board).
As a rule any slight hesitation can lead to a penalty and forfeiture of the move to your opponent — unlike in the game of chess, where a player can take time before making a move.
With his right hand, Bagabba moves the pellets (empiki) on his side of the board by dropping them one by one in each succeeding square.
He is playing in an anti-clockwise direction having started from the square next to the one from which the pellets were taken.
The move ends when his last pellets drops into an empty square.
Just as the other player, Paul Kyuma Mukwaya is about to play, his mobile phone rings. He excuses himself to answer the call. After a very brief exchange of pleasantries he informs the calle, “Your drums will be ready tomorrow afternoon.”
Answering phone calls or reading SMS messages is allowed in the modern game, contrary to the traditional rules which demand that a player concentrate on the game to avoid wasting time. Mukwaya returns to the board and moves his pellets and the last one lands in an empty square. It’s a game of skill, accuracy and speed.
This process is repeated back and forth between the two players amid the din of traffic off the busy Kampala–Masaka road.
In about six minutes Bagabba loses the game.
I say my goodbyes as they prepare to start a fresh game.
The Omweso board is usually carved out of wood; according to Mukwaya, the preferred hard woods came from the Omukebu (Cordial Africana) and Omugavu (Albizia Coriaria) for durability.
However, the scarcity of these trees has forced the carvers to use whatever is available.
One square or hole of Omweso is called essa (plural amasa).
Brown seeds called empiki from the Omuyiki tree (Mesoneurum welwitschianum) are used as pellets (counters or men).
The Omuyiki tree takes 20-40 years to mature and its fruits are used to make a foamy concotion used as soap.
Each player in a game has 32 pellets. At the start of a game each player distributes his empiki four to a square in his first row.
The centre horizontal line of the board divides it so that each player has two rows each of eight squares.
The object of the game is to capture all the opponent’s pellets or so to reduce them so that he cannot make a move.
The players sit or squat facing eash other with the board in the middle on the ground or a stand.
All the 64 pellets remain in play until one player wins. This is not a team game and a player upsetting the board automatically loses the game.
Modifications to the traditional rules of the game have helped in cutting short the duration of a game.
Whereas one game used to last between 10 and 20 minutes, today, it lasts between three and even minutes.
“The board game is probably one of the oldest in Uganda. Many ethnic groups appear to have played it for centuries, yet its origin is still obscure, although some people have suggested theories which have not yet been satisfactorily substantiated…,” says Michael B. Nsimbi in his book, Omweso, A Game People Play in Uganda.
“The claim that Omweso was introduced to Uganda from outside is a proposition which needs a great deal of linguistic, archaeological and ethnological study to prove. The argument from the other side is that it could have been taken from Uganda to other countries,” Nsimbi adds.
“Our forefathers say they played Omweso by making holes in the ground, and later carved them out of stone, before eventually settling on a mobile wood board.
Omweso had a central role in pre-colonial Buganda society.
The Kabaka (king) and his chiefs were able to identify leaders, administrators and warriors from competitive players, and chiefs were able to settle disputes by asking protagonists to challenge each other in a game of Omweso.
Games were also used as a social forum where players and those watching discussed the issues of the day from politics to religion.
However, at the beginning of the last quarter of the 19th century, Omweso and other traditional games and sports were being squeezed out of everyday life by the impact of Western lifestyles, which where upsetting the traditional social set up and life in general.
New forms of economic pursuits and administrative machinery were being established, Nsimbi observes.
“When cotton was introduced in Uganda in 1904, to enable peasants to have the means of paying poll-tax, Baganda men started for the first time to farm commercially. Before then farming, the actual tilling of land, was considered a task beneath men. Cotton growing changed all that and it kept most men busy in the fields and ate into their time for playing Omweso, which came to be regarded as an occupation for the lazy,” he adds.
The effects of colonialism are still being felt today in Uganda.
“It was a disruption of not only the indigenous systems of entertainment but also managing and enjoying leisure time. The circumstances also crippled the people’s ways of nurturing intellect, creativity, precision and strategic thinking,” said the deputy dean of the Faculty of Arts at Makerere University, Dr Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare.
“Just like many other Ugandan social practices, art forms and cultural practices were either banned or discouraged by the colonialists out of sheer ignorance and fear of losing control over the colonised populations, and unfortunately Omweso fell victim to such colonial policies,” Ntangaare adds.
This, however, has not completely killed the game as international tournaments are now held annually both in the Caribbean (Antigua) and Europe (France) and there are plans to add Africa (Ghana) to this growing list.
Local competitions are also held regularly in many countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe and the list of countries is growing every year.
In the United Kingdom a National Schools Tournament is held every year.