The history, legends and mysteries
Imagine that someone leaves
New York, Rome, London or Berlin and sets foot in Africa for the first time. He or she will soon notice that children,
especially in rural areas, are often to be seen crouched down on the ground, playing. Moving closer, the visitor
will see that the contestants (usually two, sometimes four) have dug two lines of shallow holes in the earth and
are moving pebbles quickly from one hollow to another.
On other occasions our American (or Italian, or Englishman, or German) will see adults, both men and women, playing
the same game, just as people play chess in the open in Russia and the United States, or cards at café tables
in Italy; but the adults move large grey-green or yellow-brown seeds, or marbles, or precious or semi-precious
stones around holes carved into a wooden game board.
Almost certainly, unless he or she is already well-acquainted with African customs and usages, our hypothetical
traveller has just discovered the existence of Warri. However, the game itself is ancient, and examples of the
game board in stone, dated by archaeologists have date to 1400 - 1500 BC, that is to say 3,500 years ago, have
been found. And the fact that it is often children who play should not deceive us, because this game, like almost
all the great games in the world, has simple, intuitive rules; but to be played well, it requires intelligence
and mathematical skills equal if not superior to those needed for chess, draughts or backgammon, a game to which
it has a certain affinity. There is therefore only one way open for anyone who wants to learn to play Warri well:
practice, above all in order to acquire the quickness of eye needed to realise which of your opponent's holes have
become more vulnerable, the possible outcome of the hand you are playing and which of holes in your row are at
On this web site we have decided to call the game Warri, one of the most widely-used names but actually only one
of the many by which it is known. Just ask any African you know and you will see what we mean: "Do you know
how to play Warri (or Ayo, Adi, Adji or Owele)?" "Play what?" "That game with the holes and
the seeds…" "Oh, of course, Gabat (or Mankalah, Okwe, 'Nchokoto…)".
Warri is in fact one part of an entire family of games generally known in the West by their original Arab name,
Mancala - from 'manqala' or 'mingala', with the accent on the first syllable in Syria and on the second in Egypt,
derived from the verb 'naqala', to move - or by the names Oware or Awele. A traditional African game, it is what
chess is for the Russians, Mah-jong for the Chinese, Parcheesi for the Indians and Go for the Japanese. Talking
about it is like talking about card games: the rules vary according to the origins, traditions and age of the players,
as do the shape and substance of the materials used.
In every one of its possible variations, Warri has something special: it is a game in which chance plays no part
at all. It requires, solely and exclusively, strategy and calculation. The most useful skill is mathematics, so
it could be classified as a 'Count and Capture' game; alternatively, using a classification which is linked more
to the earth than to the mind, that is to say more to the object one is playing with rather than to the competitor,
Warri could be defined as a 'sow and reap' or 'seeds and holes' game.
Above and beyond the variations, Warri always requires two or more rows of holes, never mind whether these be carved
out of splendid game-boards of fine wood, stone, metal, ceramics or terracotta or, much more simply, dug in the
earth. In order to play the game you always need a certain number of identical, undifferentiated pieces which are
distributed evenly between the holes at the start of the game.
The other common features of the game at all latitudes are the following:
- the pieces do not belong to either player, or, if you prefer, they belong to both players, and pass from one
to the other until one of the two manages to capture them;
- the holes are in the playing-board between the opponents, and each player has a territory or field represented
by the series of holes on the long side in front of him;
- to make a move, the players in turn take all the pieces in one hole and drop them one by one into the holes that
The rest is optional: there are usually twelve holes and forty-eight pieces, but there are Warri games with four
rows, with four players, with more holes or more pieces, pieces are taken in a variety of ways, and the game has
different endings and is played over varying time-spans.
Tradition has it that the two players place themselves along the East-West axis, the rising and setting of the
sun on the playing surface; the board may represent the sky and the seeds the stars, or their movement may be linked
to that of the seasons or the passing of the months, of which, coincidentally, there are twelve, just as there
are twelve holes in the majority of boards, although the association is arbitrary.
Coming down to earth from the heavens, the most logical association, and the one most widely accepted by ethnologists,
is that linked to sowing and reaping. In this case, the two players are both farmers and marauders, or perhaps
farmers with a strong lingering streak of their former nomadic culture, who sow where the ground is fertile and
can then only defend a part of their territory; however, when the conditions are favourable they can also make
raids on their adversary's territory, seeking to accumulate food reserves in their grain-stores, which are sometimes
represented by two supplementary holes at opposite ends of the board. All this takes place without making war:
Warri players do not have to reckon with the inherent aggression in a game like chess, where the pieces are used
to destroy those of the opponent in the reproduction of a bloody mediaeval battle, or with the vagaries of fortune,
so capable of causing strong positive or negative emotions, which are part of card or dice games. In Warri you
compete more with yourself than with your opponent, with whom the game tends instead to reinforce links based on
respect, friendship and cultural belonging.
The Seeds of Fortune
To play Warri, you can simply dig two lines of holes in the earth and then use poor, easy-to-find materials
such as pebbles, beads, marbles, chick-peas, beans or shells as pieces. With more elaborate boards in fine wood,
stone, copper and so on, the pieces may be precious stones, seeds or pearls. The Congolese missionary Pier Maria
Mazzola tells of having seen children playing with bullet-cases in war zones. However, the pieces best suited to
the origins and meaning of Warri are the seeds of some varieties of the Caesalpinoideae, plants which are common
all over the tropical regions of Africa and America, especially the whole of Central America, the Caribbean and
Mexico. These are the seeds that you see on this CD-ROM, and you can even hear the characteristic sound produced
by the impact of the seed on wood as you play.
The seeds, which are round with a hard, shiny surface, about the size of hazelnuts, and grey, often with a tinge
of green, or yellow-brown in colour, are produced by two trees known in the scientific community as Caesalpinia
bonduc and Caesalpinia major, names which originate from the Italian botanist Andrea Caesalpini, who wrote 'De
Plantis Libri' in 1583. They do not have a common name in Italian, but are known in English as 'Nickernuts': 'nicker'
meant 'bead' in archaic English, but was also used for the pound coin.
In Africa, these trees and seeds are often known by the same name as the 'sow and reap' game, and trying to understand
whether it was the game that gave its name to the tree and its seed, or if it was the tree and seed that gave their
name to the game (Adi, Adji, Ayò, Dara, Oware, etc.) is like wondering what came first, the chicken or the
Although Caesalpinia bonduc and Caesalpinia major are not among the more economically important members of their
family, the 'nickernuts' are thought to possess remarkable powers, both magical and medicinal. They are considered
to be good-luck charms, and are used as amulets for defence against malign spirits, including the devil himself.
The traditional African folk pharmacopoeia has made it the basis for many natural remedies for dysentery, the common
cold and headaches, and credits it with anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties, with tonic and aphrodisiac capabilities
and with being a cure for female sterility; the extract obtained therefrom, containing bonducin, was called 'the
poor-man's quinine' and used in the treatment of malarial fever.
Nowadays, in addition to being used as Warri pieces, nickernuts are often used by African, Central American and
Caribbean craftsmen to make necklaces, bracelets and pendants, frequently with other coloured seeds.
When you have been won over by virtual Warri and decide to buy a tangible, physical version, remember not to shut
it away somewhere at night, but to leave it in the open for the ghosts, spirits, zombies, gods and any other mysterious
being that may be abroad after sunset: attracted by the game, the creatures of the night will sit down to play
and will count and capture, sow and reap until morning, leaving the inhabitants of the house in peace.
This is one of the many legends, beliefs and stories that surround Warri, as happens with any game whose origins
are buried in mankind's remote past. In African tradition, and also in Brazil and the Caribbean, it retains an
aura of magic - indeed, in Brazil it has almost completely lost its function as a pastime, and has its place only
in candomblé magic rituals.
It is said that in some tribes the game could only be played by chiefs and witch-doctors, and was usually forbidden
after sunset - when the field was taken by supernatural beings - although the task of deciding the person destined
to be king could be assigned to a nocturnal Warri tournament. While on the theme of chiefs and kings, Zimbabwean
legend has it that chiefs Munyama and Malumbwe brought the war between their villages to an end by playing Warri,
in the area called Chisolo: for the record, the winner was Malumbwe, who beat Munyama 4 - 1.
As Warri is a simple game which can become very difficult when rules and complications are added, there are versions
for adults and children, and Carlo Zampolini mentions two Arab versions which are differentiated, even by their
names, according to the age of the players: Lib el-ghashim, the 'fool's game', for children and Lib el-Akil, the
'sage's game', for adults.
Depending on the nation the sex of the game changes as well. In Dahomey, Ivory Coast, Senegal and among the Tamils
in Sri Lanka, Warri is considered a women's game, while Father Pier Maria Mazzola, missionary in the Congo, tells
us that the Bayeke in Zaire do not allow their women-folk to play at all, not so much for ritual reasons, but because
they are worried that they would get so keen on the game that they would neglect their household chores.
In the northern Transvaal, too, only men may play Warri, but during the rainy season they in turn are restricted
by a curious taboo: heaven help those who play with seeds or nuts, because the noise that they produce during sowing
in the holes could attract the tempest.
Still in the Transvaal, they use the biggest Warri in the world, called Mefuhva, which has up to four rows of holes
with twenty-eight holes in each: to make it as it should be made, you need a plank more or less a metre long and
30 centimetres wide.