Native Games of Central Africa

Meredith G. Sanderson, Medical Officer, Nyasaland

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
London, 43, 1913, pages 726-736

Map of Africa

[Note: Within Africa, Nyasaland is the former name for the Republic of Malawi.]

[Page 726] The game of Nchombwa, in many different guises, is played by the Bantu races in all parts of Africa, and the characteristic holes in the ground are to be seen in every village.

Attempts to ascertain anything from the native as to its origin have, of course, been futile, but it is probable that the game has evolved with the race. I have heard it said that a similar game is played in parts of China, and, if this be true, it would be of no little interest to compare one with the other, as this would suggest an Asiatic (? Arabic) origin for the African form. In this case, however, one would expect some such game to obtain among the Arabs in the Soudan, and I am informed that this is not so.

It is interesting to compare the two games, "Chiana" and "Bau"; the former is found only among the Manyanja tribe, a slave-ridden race, and even among them it has apparently only survived for the purpose of initiating children into the more complicated games - the adult native speaks of it, as "wa chabe" (useless, of no interest). Bau, on the other hand, the national game of the warlike Swaheli, is very complex, and the manner in which the native foresees moves involving intricate mental calculation, conveys a salutary lesson to the European who misprizes the intelligence of the Bantu as a race. I have dealt with this game (Bau) at some length as, apart from academic interest, I have found it by no means to be despised as a pastime.

The underlying principle of the other games is almost constant. I have therefore not attempted to describe them all, but merely to furnish the ethnologist with sufficient examples to be representative of the rest. They may also be of interest to the resident in Africa, and may act as a clue to the forms of the game played by the tribes in his vicinity.

The following is a list of the games of different tribes (names in parenthesis) which the author describes. In most instances he offers detailed playing instructions and explanatory graphics. Click on a game name to view a page about that game.

Last update January 11, 2010