A Note on Mancala Games
in Northern Rhodesia

J.H. Chaplin, Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia

MAN, No.192-193,1956, pages 168-170.

Map of Africa

Note: Northern Rhodesia is now called Zambia.

[Page 168] In his review of Mancala games, Murray1 bases his entry for Northern Rhodesia for the most part on Smith and Dale's accounts of the Ila people2. Tracey has given the basic games played in Southern Rhodesia3; and it is perhaps of interest to place on record some of the games of this type which are played in Northern Rhodesia at the present time.

For the most part these games are played in holes in the ground, the predominating sandy soil making the excavation of cups quite easy. However, boards are in use. The example shown in fig. 1 is in the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum, and is attributed to the Balungu tribe of Mporokoso District4. The museum also has a stone on which the faint marks of cups can be seen, and others are known.

The pieces used in the game vary; stones are common as are various seeds. The seeds of the mungongo tree5 are frequently used in the area in which this tree is found, being very durable and of a convenient size.

Figure 1

In an account of the history of his tribe, a Muila tells of two rival chiefs Munyama and Malumbwe. The former had lent a magician to the latter. This man had created a salt pool for Malumbwe, who had then killed him to prevent his return. The quarrel that resulted was to be resolved by what the informant describes as 'native chess'. The account continues '... they all agreed and met on the way, and sat on a rock and made some holes for stones and they started playing and Malumbwe was won by 4 to 1.' A further argument developed over the result and the descendants of the two groups are still said not to eat food in each other's districts. The account goes on ' ... The Pool and the Chess are still seen, the boiling water and a plain around it still the same, the chess is on a rock, the marks of their feet, hands and stones holes are there today [Page 169] in Mumbwa district at the village called Mafwele taking the road from Mumbwa to Namwala.'

The descriptions of the games that follow are in the notations developed by Murray6.

LOZI Tribe: Mulabalaba. 4X6 or 4X8 holes. Two beans, sometimes three, in each hole. Play is anti-clockwise. A move starts from any loaded hole, usually in the back row and the player's left. Beans are sowed singularly; if the last bean falls in a hole already occupied, that hole is emptied and its total contents sown. If the last bean falls in an empty hole of the front row, and the opponent's front hole of that file is occupied, then the opponent's beans in the whole file are captured and removed from the board. When a player has only single beans in his holes, he must if possible sow a single bean into an adjacent hole that is occupied, lifting them both and sowing accordingly.

TOKA Tribe: Mulabalaba. 4X12 or 4X16 holes. Two beans in each hole. Play is anti-clockwise and exactly as the Lozi game above.

LUNDA Tribe: (Mwinilunga District.) Kanotta. 4X8 ho1es. Two beans in each hole. Play is anti-clockwise. Before play properly begins X takes the contents of four of Y’s holes, and Y takes the same number from X. Play is the same as the Lozi game except that besides taking the contents of the opponent's file opposite the empty hole in which the player has landed, he may also remove the contents of any other two of his opponent’s holes. All captures are removed from the board.

TUMBUKA Tribe: Nchuba. 4X16 holes. Two beans in each hole of the back row only. Play is anti-clockwise and is the same as the Lozi game with the following variation. When X 'eats' (this is the common word used to denote capture) for the first time, he takes the opponent’s file, also three other holes; when he 'eats' for the second time he takes the file and any two other holes. After third and subsequent captures he removes the contents of the file and any one other hole. At the first capture it is advantageous to remove Y’s leading hole, one of his right-hand back row, and any other. While there are two beans in any hole on your side you may not move singles. The senior man begins to play, thereafter the winner of the previous round begins.

BANTU BOTATWE (Kaonde Ila) Tribe: Nakabili. 4X8 holes. Two beans in each hole except the front left-hand hole which is left empty, and the hole on the right of this which has one bean on1y. Play is anti-clockwise and is the same as the Lozi game with the following variation. When X 'eats' for the first time he removes the contents of Y's file plus the contents of two other holes. Y does similarly when he first 'eats.' On the second and subsequent captures he removes the opponent's file plus one other ho1e. If all the holes have singles except one which just two, this is called mutwi (the head) and must be moved.

BANTU BOTATWE (Kaonde Ila) Tribe: Kabwanga (this is a nickname for the hyena, referring to its habit of snatching goats which have been tied up). 4X8 holes. Two beans in each of the back row holes, two beans in the front right-hand hole, one bean in the hole next to this, the remainder of the front row empty. Play is anti-clockwise and is the same as the Lozi game with the following variation. If you end your lap in an empty hole and the hole ahead of it (i.e. to the left of it) has two or more beans in it, then you have another lap; if the following hole has only one bean in it, this advantage cannot be taken. The movement of the mutwi mentioned in the previous Bantu Botatwe game also applies to this.

TONGA Tribe: Chisolo I (I suspect that there is a different 'old people's' name for this game but have been unable to find it). 4X5 holes. Three beans in each hole. Play is anti-clockwise. Play is the same as in the Lozi game with the variation that besides capturing the contents of the opponent's file, the player may also take and discard the contents of any one other hole.

TONGA Tribe: Chisolo II (the note above concerning the name applies here also). 4X5 holes. Three beans in each hole. The senior man begins the first game, there after the loser of the previous game begins. Play usually begins on the right-hand side of the back row. Beans are sown singly; if the last is sown into all already occupied front hole, the opponent's file opposite to this may be captured provided he has beans in the front hole of the file. To land in an empty hole finishes the lap and you cannot 'eat.' The captured beans are re-sown into the capturer's rows, the re-sowing beginning at the hole next to the hole the filling of which enabled the capture to be made. If sowing results in the last bean landing in a full hole and no capture is possible as the opponent's file is empty, then the contents of the hole are removed and re-sown.

As this is the first re-entry game described in this note a sample game is given below using the score defined by Murray7:

Y3f : 3D3C Y(6i) Y4e
X3B X4E : 5g4d X(9J) : 4c5h X(9I) : 4b5i X(9H) : 4a4j ENDS

This is a very brief game; one of 60 laps has been recorded, and 30 is probably the average.

BEMBA Tribe: Mwambulula. 4X8 holes. Two beans in each hole; the front rows are at once cleared to make a store. Play is anti-clockwise. If a player lands in a full hole he may 'eat' his opponent's opposite file provided that the front hole has beans. If he is unable to 'eat,' the contents of the hole are re-sown. The captured beans are re-entered, the sowing beginning at the hole from which the 'eating' move commenced. At any time during the game when your own beans are running short you may empty your store and add one bean to each of your holes.

BEMBA Tribe: Isolo I. 2X8 holes. Two beans in each hole plus a store of indefinite size. The game is played in two parts, which I shall call 'fore-play' and 'main game.' The fore-play begins with a player taking one of the store beans (called nkonto), this is added to a hole and the entire contents are removed and sowed anti-clockwise beginning at the left-hand hole of his row. If the final bean is sown in an empty hole, the lap is finished and the player 'sleeps.' If it lands in an occupied hole he can 'eat' his opponent's beans. Re-sowing of the captures follows certain rules. In the following, Y is assumed to be capturing men from X.

  1. If the beans captured occupy holes C, D, E, F, they are re-sown beginning at a.
  2. If there are two or more beans in holes A, B, G, H, they arc re-sown beginning at a.
  3. If there is a single bean in B, on capture it is added to h; if A is also occupied the contents arc captured, added to h and the tota1 contents of h re-sown beginning at a. (These single beans arc called mwipinda.).
  4. If there is a single bean in G, on capture it is added to a; if H is occupied the contents are captured, added to a, and the total contents of a are re-sown beginning at b.
  5. If any of the above re-sowings results in a further capture, the captured beans are re-sown beginning at a.
  6. If a player in sowing, or re-sowing, ends in a hole already occupied, but the opposite hole is empty, then he takes the contents of his own hole and continues sowing. If a capture now results, the captured beans are re-sown beginning at the hole next to that emptied to begin the lap, subject to the overriding pro¬visions or (3) and (4) above.
  7. If the store bean is added to g, the contents of g are re-sown beginning at h, not a.

When the fore-play results in a decision, the loser sets two beans in each hole. The winner arranges his beans in the way he thinks most to his advantage with no limitations as to number of beans used or holes occupied. This is called kucheleka. The main game then continues in accordance with the rules outlined above.

BEMBA Tribe: Isolo II. 4X8 holes. (I am uncertain whether this is an authentic tribal game; it may be a town simplification of the previous game.) Play is anti-clockwise. Two beans arc sown in [Page 170] each hole to see that the correct number are being used. Then each man fills his holes as he likes, with a maximum of 12 beans in any one hole, and generally filling the back rows rather than the front ones. The board being set a player begins by taking the contents of any hole, sowing singly. If the last bean lands in an occupied front and there are also beans in the back row of this file, then he can 'eat' his opponent's opposite file, provided there are beans in the front row. The captures are re-sown beginning at the hole next to that which was emptied to begin the lap, and so on with further captures. If the last bean lands in an empty hole, the lap ends.

I am unable to give notes on any other mancala games at present, but there are two other games which may be worth recording.

A game which is popular in the Livingstone district is called mulabalaba by the Lozi, which is the same word used to describe the mancala game. The board is marked out on cardboard or a table, and is a pattern of three squares one inside the other with the corners and midpoints of the sides joined by straight lines. This is a typical three-in-a-line board (Murray shows this8). Maize seeds, whites and purples, are often used as counters. Each man has 12 and these are entered alternately. When either makes a line of three he can remove anyone of his opponent's counters. When all the pieces are entered the main game begins; counters being moved along the straight lines to form lines of three, with resulting captures. Jumping is not allowed except that a player having a counter at an outside corner may move it wherever he likes. The loser begins the next round.

To complete this note a competitive game of skill may be mentioned. This is the Tonga game kuyata. Twelve mumgongo seeds are put in a hole in the ground and the player squats by it. One seed is then taken out and thrown up; while it is in the air the player watches it and while ready to catch it with one hand must grab as many seeds as he can out of the hole with the other. If the thrown seed is caught all the withdrawn seeds are returned but one. So the game continues, one of the withdrawn seeds being kept out until all are removed. If the player fails to catch the thrown seed then all the gains that have been made have to be returned to the hole and the game begins again. Prestige for speed is the reward. I have only seen it played by children, usually girls.

I am grateful to the Curator of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum, Dr. J. Desmond Clark, O.B.E., for allowing me to photograph and measure the boards in the Museum collection. Many African friends have helped in the preparation of this paper, but I must especially mention Mr. Raphael Chitalima, Mr. Simon Micelo and Mr. Maxwell Shanyimbo, for their patient help.


  1. H. J. R. Murray, A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess, Oxford, 1952.
  2. E. W. Smith and A. M. Dale, The I1a-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, London, 1920.
  3. H. Tracey, 'The rules of the native game Tsoro,' N.A.D.A. No. 9, pp. 33f, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1931. This is a description of the game using an odd number of holes which is all unusual feature. See also Sanderson in J. R. Atlthrop. Inst., Vol. XLIII (1913), pp. 726f.
  4. The dimensions of the board, excluding the store, are 55 X 30 centimeters. Another example consists of two rows of 8 holes with a store; this is 85 X 15 centimeters overall. It is made by the Bisa tribe for their local game of iisolo of which I have no note.
  5. The Silozi name for Ricinodendron rautanetii. The seeds are ovoid, 2.5 centimeters long, 2.0 centimeters in diameter. Mainly found in the Kalahari Sand country.
  6. Murray, op. cit., pp. 164f.
  7. Ibid., p. 214.
  8. Ibid., fig. 18, type G.

Last update January 11, 2010