The Game of Ganna

Samuel Alamayahu

University College Ethnological Society Bulletin,

Addis Ababa, No. 9, 1959, pages 9-27.

(Editor’s Note: This lengthy paper included many English and Ethiopian words, letters, symbols, and accent marks. There were also a graphic table of Ethiopian words and phrases. The paper also included the lyrics for the songs sung by players of the game. There were a number of sketches included in the article, but only one has been included for this presentation. Finally, there were many footnotes used to offer alternative translations of Ethiopian words, to direct the reader to additional sources, or to elaborate upon a fact presented in the text. These footnotes have not been included in this edited presentation.The content has been edited and only contains words in the English language. )

Map of Africa

[Page 9 ] If ever there was a national or popular game in Ethiopia, then surely it is ganna, a kind of hockey peculiar to Ethiopia. It is played however mostly by the Amhara, the Tigre, the Gurage and the Agau. Reliable facts seem to show that ganna, together with other elements of Amhara culture, has been assimilated fairly recently by those Galla who have had contact with the Amhara. Thus ganna is played by Galla mainly of Sawa, Wallaga and Wallo, all of which encircle the Amhara regions, and not by the Galla of Arussi, Sidamo and Illubabor. Among Galla the game is called kole. Because the game is comparatively rough and, therefore, needs tough players, it is not played by girls or women but by boys, young men and on occasions by the elders.

The word ganna comes from a Greek word which means "birth". This word found its way into geez as gena, thence into Amharic as ganna. Thus, as its meaning suggests, ganna is a game which is played at the festival of Christmas. Although boys, usually herd boys, begin to play ganna [Page 10 ] two or even three months before Christmas (the Ethiopian Christmas normally falls on January 7), it is ceremonially started by old men and adults on the late-afternoon of Christmas Eve and, sometimes, a few days earlier on the feast of Tahsas Gabree. For the ceremony, it is customary for all the male population of a town or village, particularly old men and adults, to go to the nearby field or open space where the game takes place, and touch the ball with the stick. Everyone touches the ball saying:

"(Oh Lord) provide (it) for me from year to year. Tell me (that I am) a man who will live (through one) rainy season (into next year)".

The rainy season is approximately the last three months of the Ethiopian year. The couplet refers to the annual game of ganna and so indirectly to the singer's life. This formal commencement is called enkurkuso. The real and indeed, spectacular display of the game is on the afternoon of Christmas Day.


The equipment consists of a strong stick, curved at one end, called, like the game itself, ganna, and a ball. The ball may be one of two kinds. One is made out of a rounded piece of hard-wood such as olive tree, usually put into fire for a short time so that it may be smoothly rounded and hardened. This is called srur. The other type is made by weaving a long strip of leather into a rounded shape and is called tsng. Because it travels much faster when hit and is therefore more liable to cause serious injury, the tsng is used mostly by grown men, and not by boys. Instead the latter use the srur which is less likely to cause injuries.

The Playing Field:

An open space is necessary for playing ganna. In the countryside it is played where possible in flat fields, and in the towns it is played mostly in the market place which is usually situated in the centre or the town. The extent of the playing field is not fixed, but normally the length is not more than 1½ Kilometers and the breadth not more than half the length. At the two ends of the flat space are found the two goals alliwoc (alli singular). In Sawa the goal is called gab (gaboc plural). These alliwoc are not goals in the strict sense of the word. They are rough areas marked out by some natural feature such as a tree, or elevated ground, or hollow. Sometimes these alliwoc are so far apart that night falls before a goal is scored, but this is very rare indeed. A goal is scored when the ball passes well over the mark or the boundary.

Preparation for the Game:

Before the game starts the players are divided into two teams by means of a procedure called budan. First, two elders (lit. fathers) abbatoc, each of whom is to be head of a team, are suggested and automatically [Page 11] picked by the players, usually because of their experience and proficiency in the game. The two "fathers", say A and B, first cast lots or make use of sakuca as to who should have the first chance to select players. The players come in pairs and standing in front of the "fathers" say "budsn buden" . Then the captain who is entitled to select first - let us suppose it is A - replies: "Kaman, kaman". Now one of the pair will say, for instance, "kanaber, kanbasa" - between the leopard and the lion. If A prefers the lion to the leopard, then the member of the pair who is "leopard" sides with B. This process continues until everyone has sided either with A or B. But sometimes it happens that one man is left without a partner. If so, this man will have to play for one team until one of the teams scores a goal and then he shifts over to the other side. This man is called amat landu. This buden system is a sort of ‘pick-up' game. When the buden system is not used one half of a town or village will usually play against the other. In this case the two sides may not be equal in the number of players, for each section sends all of its men and one half of a town or area may be more populous than the other.

Formerly, when Ethiopia was divided into Principalities and feudalism was at its height, it was usual for a chieftain to challenge another one in the game of ganna. As this was one of those rare occasions for the followers to enhance the fame of their respective masters, this game was really very spectacular. Though the result was mostly peaceful, yet the atmosphere of the game was like a battle with such noise and fury of actions. Here also the number of players between the two sides was not equal.

The Game:

At the centre of the space chosen, a little hole is made with a stick, and here the ball is concealed. But if there is a tuft of grass at the centre of the field, then it is hidden in the grass. Next the two "fathers", facing each other, beat the earth twice and then clash their sticks, immediately after which the ball is batted by the quicker of the two. This is called mankorakos, which means commencement. Once the ball is batted, away the players go, dashing after it either to advance it, if they are the attackers, or to force it back towards the opposite goal, if they are the defenders. Unlike modern games [Page 12] there is no definite position for each player and, therefore, the game is somewhat disorderly. But two elderly men are designated, each standing on one side of the field, to see that there is no unnecessary "rough-stuff" between the players.

Ganna game in play

This is an edited version of the sketch which appears on Page 13

When a swift player has outpaced his adversaries and is free with the ball, he places the ball, with the help of the curved end of the stick, on the upper surface of his left or right foot. He then tosses up the ball with his foot, catches it with his hand, throws it up and hits it with his stick. This is called kalama. But if an adversary happens to be nearby, that adversary can kick him with his foot as hard as he can or can strike his hand while the other is trying to catch the ball. Thus, the first player will not dare to do a kalama when one of his adversaries is around.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the game as displayed by an exceptionally active player is the tactic called mawata. This consists in an opponent quickly snatching the ball away when a player is preparing to make a hit as in kalama. Here the player who tries to snatch away the ball has to be very quick and careful; he may finish up with a fracture or at least the dislocation of his hand. But men who are proficient in mawata are very few indeed and these are undoubtedly the stars of the game.

Unlike present-day games, ganna has no complicated regulations. The few rules it has are simple and elementary. One is that a player should always have the ball on his right side. If by mistake or deliberately a player has it on his left side or even if he happens to be left-handed, his adversary will first remind him by saying bamuneh, if the player keeps on hindering his opponent by occupying the wrong position, then the opponent has the right to smite the leg of the player with his stick as if he were hitting the ball. Another rule is that, if a player falls over or is injured by an obstacle while he is running with the ball, he can say awlan, and meaning “count me out" (of the game), which is equivalent to "time-out". If so, no one from the opposite team is allowed to hit the ball until the player gets up. Even then the game has to be started by "mankorakos" on the spot where the player fell or stopped running. But this rule is observed only when the number of players is very few for, if the players are numerous, no one will hear or see the man who is injured. In the course of the game a player can either catch the ball and hit it or strike it while it’s in the air. But no one is allowed to take the ball with his hand directly from [Page 15] the ground and bat it. Finally, every time a team scores a goal the teams change sides.

Speed for running and skill and alertness for the mawatat are the necessary pre-requisites on the part of the players. The side or team which has more men of these qualities will naturally score the more goals. The team which first scores a goal reviles the adversary before resuming the game. But usually a team has to score two goals in a row before it begins to revile the adversary. Here are a few of the commonest songs of derision.

No one knows his mother - ho!
No one knows his father - ho!
Like a beggar's corn - ho!
He (just) came and mingled (with us) - ho!
Gänna is a flower (which blooms but once a year);
if we play (at it),
what is (there to it)? -i.e. why shouldn't we?
When I outpaced him in running,
He looked at me in wrath.
This is my habit (I always outpace people).
The servant of (St.) Mikael.
[Page 16]
Indeed my lads (my team)
though mere) midgets
sting like bees.

Gänna is played only in the afternoon and it lasts until dusk. It often ends peacefully. But on account of its roughness and disorderliness, heads sometimes are smashed, legs and hands broken or dislocated, cheeks torn, eyes lost and so on. However, in the game of Gänna there is no compensation whatsoever for any damage done to a player during the game because it is understood that no player does any harm to his adversaries deliberately. When the day draws to its close and the players find it hard to see the small ball in motion, then the game comes to a stop. The side which scored the greater number of goals automatically wins the day. Finally the victors depart for home, at a jog trot, reviling the losers. As I pointed out earlier, the songs which the victors sing are just derisions of the losers or of their chief.

(Note: From the middle of Page 16 through the middle of Page 22 there are verses in both Ethiopian and English for a number of songs sung by the players.)

[Page 22] Even though gänna is basically the same everywhere, we find these minor differences in certain regions. One peculiarity can be the extent of the game season. In Bagdmsder, for example, gänna is played on Christmas Day and during the next two months. In Wallo the game season ranges from Hadar to the end of Tar (i.e. November l0th to February 7th); it is about the same in Sawa, too. The extent of the game season can be different even within one province. For example, in Damot and Acefer, both of which are constituent parts of Coggam, the game season varies. In Damot gänna is played from the beginning of Tahsas (i.e. December 10th) to the feast of Epiphany (Temkat [Page 25] i.e. January 19th) and in Acefer from Hadar to Tar. But there is one thing in common to these various regions: they al play it around Christmas.

Another peculiarity is that in Wallo the last day of the season used to be (it is no longer practiced) marked by a concluding ceremony. On the last day of the season one of the teams was made up of bachelors or of men who had been married less than two years. The other team consisted of men, who had been married more than two years and old men. The game as usual proceeded from the afternoon until evening. If the team of the elders won, it was said that the day was good; if not, the day was considered as an ill-fated one. When the game came to a stop, all the players gathered together and then threw their sticks towards the sky. As soon as the sticks fell down the players placed themselves in a row, close together, each squatting front of his stick and holding it with his hands. Then the eldest man of the community standing in front of the players blessed them saying: "May God preserve your life and enable you to play thus for the coming year.” The moment the blessing was over, everybody rushed to the old man to kiss his feet because it was believed that the first to kiss the old man's feet would be strong throughout the year. Finally a Moslem priest collected the sticks and took them home for his fire because it was regarded a shame for a player to go home with his stick and what is more it was currently believed that God would curse the one who did so.

Although it has disappeared now there was a further peculiarity in Goggam. After the end of the game on Christmas Day, it was customary for the players to go to the house of respected and well-to-do people and there sing exhilarating local songs - different in theme from those discussed earlier - and perform native dances. As this was customary, these respected persons of the community used to have money ready to give to the players and the food for Moslems alike, are also fond of blessings, but the fondness for blessings of the people of Wallo is something remarkable. In fact, blessing nowadays is so commonplace everywhere in Wallo that it has become a routine for all.

[Page 26] But sometimes it happened that the person to whose house the players went was a miser and, therefore, did not give any money or even the refreshments required of him by tradition. If so, the players departed and, while going away, pretended to moan for the miser because they considered him as a dead man. They even went further, performing the makbar which literally means burial, as follows:

On the coming market day all the players would assemble near the market place and make a rough effigy of the miser. Then they would dig a shallow rectangular grave on the spot and bury the effigy. All this while they would be crying aloud pretending to moan the death of the miser, their aim being to attract the attention of the people in the market. When surrounded by a large crowd, they would say: "So-and-so (the miser) is dead" and then begin to throw stones and branches of trees and what-not on the buried effigy until the pile became as large as a small hut. All the people who gathered to see the effigy then returned to their own affairs with a great hatred and contempt for the miser. Having defamed the miser, the players dispersed. From then on the miser became unpopular and contemptible and, indeed, a victim of positive hatred. His family was referred to as - "the miser family".

[Page 27] The man was hated by everybody big or small, so much so that no one would marry his daughter or give his daughter in marriage to his son. If his house were on fire, practically no one would go to his rescue; if he lost any domestic animal, no one would help him find it and, what is more, if he or anyone in the family died, practically no one would go to the funeral. In short the man with his family became a helpless outcast, a person ostracized by society. Therefore, the respected persons of the society were very careful to have the money ready to give and, if possible, costly refreshment, for this would mean increase in their popularity in the society. All these features of gänna show, how much gänna had permeated the social, political and religious spheres of life of past Ethiopia.

The importance attached to gänna by Ethiopians was very great. It meant to them something of what the Olympic Games meant to the Ancient Greeks. Between the end of one game season and the coming of the other, people, especially old men who had retired from active life, talked about the Herculean speed of so-and-so in the last game season, his skill in mawatat; what the winners of the day said in their songs of revilement about the losers; how an extensive feast was given to the elders of the community by the players and many more. From the religious point of view, gänna served as a joyful game refreshing the memory of the Joyful Day (Christmas). Nowadays the enthusiasm and the importance attached to it seem to have waned, particularly in the towns. Perhaps formal law is censoring spontaneous jubilation and in rough games; health considerations discouraging exhausting and harmful games; and modern sports such as football absorbing the attention of modern men.

Last update July 19, 2010