Two men, possibly in their early to mid-fifties, sat across from each other. Excitement, concentration, and wit were plastered on their faces.
They are hurdled over a wooden board whose surface is punctuated by 12 hollows – each containing a cluster of ash-coloured seeds – amid the watchful eyes of an interested audience, who would have loved to be the participants.
“Wait!” someone echoed from the sea of faces watching seeds move on the board like a bouncing ball.
For such a friendly competition, the atmosphere is extremely fierce. Even the motorcycle riders, known as “okada” in Nigeria, who ferried people to the venue and packed a couple of metres away, were not eager to leave.
The board felt like a celebrity, as Johnson Adeoye, wearing a blue shirt with yellow stripes, looked up to acknowledge promptings from the audience; like a grandmaster, he dipped his hand into one of the hollows in the brownish wooden board to pick up some ball-like seeds.
In a swift anti-clockwise move, he deftly began to drop seeds in the adjoining hollows, emptying them in a frenzy as he raced to victory in a cozy evening at Otutu Street in the ancient town of Ile-Ife, Osun State.
This is Ayò Olọ́pọ́n – as it is referred to in the Yoruba-dominated South West of Nigeria – the African board game on a quest for Olympic recognition.
Played in many parts of Nigeria and beyond, the game is similar to the Endodoi of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania.
In the literal sense, Ayò Olọ́pọ́n means “the game of the wooden board” in Yoruba, one of the widely spoken languages in Nigeria.
‘My Talent Is From God’
“I am a talented man. I was 13 years old when I started playing the game. I did not learn it from anyone,” Johnson, who became the first Ayo gold medalist when the game was introduced at the 11th National Sports Festival, held in Imo State in 1998, said.
“One day, I just called my dad and told him, ‘Let me play this game with you!’ and I defeated my dad 12-0.”
“I did not have any coach to train with. My talent is from Almighty God. Nobody trained me. In my family compound back then, they played the game.”
Across the country and beyond, Ayò Olọ́pọ́n is known by different names. Among the Igbos, it is called “Ncho,” or “Okwe”.
In other West African countries like Ghana, Senegal, etc, and in the Caribbean, the strategy game is known as Aware/Oware and Wari respectively. A similar one in South Africa is called Maruba. The Kenyan version is referred to as Bao.
How Ayò Olọ́pọ́n Is Played
The different names seem to point to one thing – difficulty in singling out an ethnic group or country as the originators of the game. This is even further compounded by the fact that Ayò Olọ́pọ́n is sometimes played in slightly different variations in Africa and elsewhere.
But for the Yorubas, a historian, Dr. Akin Ogundiran, noted that two types of materials – a twelve-hole rectangular wooden box and 48 Ayò seeds, which are now made of marble or plastic-like seeds, are used for the game.
“Four seeds are placed in each hole. Only two people can play the game, and each player will have six holes on his/her side-24 seeds for each player. Two individuals take turns to play the game by distributing the seeds from one hole into the other holes in an anti-clockwise direction,” he explained, describing it as “what we call sowing. If there are three or fewer Ayò seeds on the opponent’s side, the player collects those.
“The players take turns to play until they exhaust the seeds, or it becomes practically impossible for one of the players to make any move. The goal of the game is to capture as many seeds of the opponent as possible. The player with the most number of seeds wins the game.”
Worried by the lack of adequate records pointing back to Africa as the origin of the board game, a member of the Osun State House of Assembly, Babatunde Olatunji, fears that the continent could lose this “part of our cultural heritage”.
“I can foresee in the nearest future, we may not be too surprised to have seen history being rewritten and somebody proving to us that Ayò Olọ́pọ́n does not also emanate from us,” Babatunde stated in a phone interview.
The lawmaker says that even the little evidence about the game has not done much in that respect. Most of the research into the origin of Ayò Olọ́pọ́n were carried out by people outside the continent, he added.
Going To The Source
In trying to trace the origin of the Ayò Olọ́pọ́n, Dr. Ogundiran admitted that it is played in several parts of the world but did not mince words in pinpointing where it emanated from.
Ayò Olọ́pọ́n is pervasive among the Niger-Congo peoples – from the edge of the Sahara in Senegal to the rainforest of Central Africa and from the coast of West Africa to the beaches of East Africa, the historian noted.
“We can make a strong case that the game originated from the ancestors of the present Niger-Congo-speaking peoples, the largest language family in Africa,” the professor of Africana Studies, Anthropology and History at the University of North Carolina, told Channels Television.
“The game spread with the expansion of those ancestors from their savanna homeland (present-day Senegal-Mali-Mauritania boundaries) into the rainforest between 7,000 and 3,000 years ago,” he said, explaining that “it reflects advanced cognitive and quantitative skill sets about the time that many people in West Africa (proto-Niger-Congo ancestors) began to adopt agricultural subsistence, farming communities, and settled life, 7,000-5,000 years ago.
“It is a game that every country in Sub-Saharan Africa should elevate to the status of national heritage. As we know, many social innovations and even technology began with games.”
Beyond the African shores, Ncho is quite popular in the Caribbean where it is better known as Warri.
During the Middle Passage – the forced movement of millions of Africans to the new world (Americas) – which lasted from 1518 to the mid-19th century, the enslaved Africans took along with them their cultures.
Ayò Olọ́pọ́n, just like many of the Niger-Congo languages and culture, was taken to the Caribbean by these Africans, Dr. Ogundiran explained.