The Mweso Game Among The Basoga

Mother M. Anna, O.S.F.
Nagalama Convent, Kampala, Uganda, British East Africa

Primative Man, (Anthropological Quarterly), Washington D.C.,
Vol. 11, 1938, pages 71-74

[Page 71] I first observed this mweso game among the Bantu-speaking Basoga last year on a visit up into the Eastern Provence of the Uganda Protectorate where the Basoga people live. The game is well known throughout the Protectorate and, I believe, the same game or a very similar one is played in the north by the Arabs and on the African West Coast. One evening while out for a walk, we passed what appeared to be a group of ordinary huts but which turned out to be a sort of “tavern” where much drinking of mwenge, banana beer, was going on.

[Page 72]In front of the huts two men, seated on the ground, were playing the game, while around them was gathered a crowd of very absorbed spectators. In front of the two men round holes were scooped out of the earth, thirty-two in number, in four rows of eight each, so that each player had two rows of eight in which to play. The game is commonly played on rectangular boards, with the same number and arrangement of holes, but when no board is available holes are just scooped in the ground. Stones, seeds, nuts, in fact almost anything small that can be conveniently handled may be used for “men”.

Figure 1

The main idea is to capture your opponent's "men”. You play in your two rows of eight, and he in his. At the beginning of the game any arrangement of the men is permissible. You can put some in the first row, some in the second, but you should be careful not to place men in any two corresponding squares of your two rows (e.g., in the third hole from your left in both your first and second rows), because in this case your opponent, stopping opposite these two filled squares, can capture your men found therein. Your opponent may likewise arrange his men at the beginning of play in any way he likes. In figure 1, an arbitrary arrangement of men at the beginning of play is represented by the small hollow circles, each player using thirty-two men.

[Page 73] After this first disposition of men, the moves begin. These moves are always anti-clockwise, as represented by the broken line in fig, 1. You may begin in any of the filed squares, of either your first or your second row, scooping up the men therein in your down-turned palm, and then moving anti-clockwise on to the next holes, dropping a man in each hole without skipping any hole until all the men in your palm have been deposited. If you finish in a hole in your second row and opposite this hole your opponent has two holes with men in them, you may take all his men that are in the two holes, and then continue your play until your men give out again. If, on the other hand, you finish in a hole in which there are already men of your own, you may continue your play, by taking up these men and also the last of yours which you had just put in, and going on until your men give out. If you finish in an unoccupied square, your turn is over and it becomes your opponent's turn to move, by the same rules and chances by which you have moved.

In fig. 1, a first move by A is illustrated, by way of example, in the dotted line. The player started in the fifth square from the left, first row, which contained four men (represented by the hollow circles), and dropped one of these (represented by the solid black circles) in each of the following holes, finishing in the last hole to the right, second row. As this hole had men in it, eleven in the illustrative example, he was allowed to continue playing; so he gathered up the eleven plus the last one he had just deposited and went on dropping one (solid black circles) in each succeeding hole and finishing in the fifth hole from the left, first row. Then he had to stop, for this hole was empty - the original four in it having been taken up at the beginning of his move. His opponent would now move.

I have no doubt there are further rules to the game but the above is the main idea and procedure.

The moves are made by the natives so rapidly and the exact number of men in your opponent's holes must be perceived so quickly that the closest attention to the game on the part of the players is demanded. It is perfectly amazing to see them, hands down over the board, racing across the board, dropping the men quickly into place, scooping up the other player's men, and relaying [Page 74] - all with a speed hard for the unpracticed eye to follow. A clever player can easily cheat, if his opponent does not sharply watch how many men he has picked up, and, besides, an odd man or two can be concealed in the hand and dropped at the next turn to move in a hole opposite the opponent’s two filled ones, which would net him the men in both.

We have played the game among ourselves, and have found it very enjoyable, but we have not attained the level of cleverness at it which the natives themselves attain.

Last update January 10, 2010