Awele comes straight from the Ivory Coast and is part of the large family of Mancalas, or « sowing games ». It is probably the most well known African game in the west, although it can be found in many other parts of the world; the Middle East, South-East Asia, the Antilles and Latin America.
Its roots stretch back deep into the history of the African continent and although Mancalas more than 3,500 years old have been found in the temples of ancient Egypt, historians are still puzzled by its first appearance: in Cameroon just before modern times or in Ethiopia between 1000 BC and 200 BC? Its appearance in the Americas (the Carribean, Antilles, Brazil, Louisiana), coincided with the population movements of the slave trade.
From Warri to Owani via Awele, the family of Mancalas has many variations its name changes between countries, and the rules are adapted to suit tribal customs, but its overriding characterictic is conviviality. In general only the men take part except in some simplified variations, such as Wali from Burkina Faso where having fun is more important than careful play.
Awele is sometimes played with small holes dug in the ground itself, but usually consists of a long wooden board marked with two rows of six identical holes. 48 seeds found nearby are perfectly adequate for the pieces.
Each player takes his place in front of one of the rows and distributes the seeds in the holes: each one therefore contains four seeds at the start of the game. The players then have to sow and harvest the seeds: the players take it in turns to take the seeds from a hole in front of them and sow them in the following holes going anti-clockwise. When he has sown his final seed the player whose turn it is, can harvest the other seeds in that hole, so long as it is one of the opponent’s holes and contains either 2 or 3 seeds. He can then return back up the line of holes harvesting the seeds until he reaches one that contains either one seed only or more than three. The game usually ends when it is no longer possible to sow or harvest: the winner is the player who has harvested the most seeds (including those he has taken up and those still in his holes).
Obviously these rules are almost childishly simple. But like many other games with pieces (Go, Othello,…), Awele is rich in strategy. One of the main subtleties of the game is to accumulate seeds in a hole using it like a barn to store them, judiciously redistributing them at the right moment to ensure a large harvest. Winning a game is less a matter of luck than a mathematical calculation to work out the opponent’s moves and devise your own strategy.
But Awele is not a « serious » game: its symbolism of sowing and sharing, the unusual principle of a permanent redistribution are expression of an African culture which makes the games all the more lively and cheerful. It is quite common to see children laughing as they play simplified versions of Awele: during the games they gradually learn how to count and discover more sophisticated tactics.
In the West Awele is often relegated to being a decorative object, but it surely deserves to be rediscovered. If by chance you pull a long oblong box out of the back of your attic, open it up and plunge your fingers in those little piles of seeds!