excerpt from

A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess

H.J.R. Murray

Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1952, Chapter 7, pages 158-159

[Page 158] MANCALA (Arabic manqala or minqala, with the accent on the first syllable in Syria and on the second in Egypt, from the verb naqala, 'to move') is the name of a popular game in the Levant and Egypt which is played on a board containing two rows of cup-shaped depressions or holes in which the pieces are arranged and moved. Anthropologists use the term mancala for any similar game played on a board in which the pattern of lines and cells usual for board-games is replaced by two, three, or four rows of holes deep enough to contain a number of pieces at the same time. I shall do the same, but shall call the games mancala II, III, and IV, classifying the games by the number of rows of holes in the boards…

Today mancala games are widely spread over the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and the adjacent islands, and African slaves carried them to the West Indies and America. Mancala II is played in Asia, in Arabia, Palestine (Arabs only), Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, India, Ceylon, southern China, Annam, Siam, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In Africa it is played in Egypt, Tunisia, Nubia, and the Sudan, in the Bahr el-Ghazal, Abyssinia, Somaliland, and Kenya, in West Africa from the Senegal to the Gabon, in the Congo basin and Angola. In America it is played by peoples of African ancestry in all parts to which the slave trade extended. Mancala III, now obsolete in Arabia, Abyssinia, and. possibly in Somaliland, is still played in parts of the Eastern Sudan and Kenya. Mancala IV is played in the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ruanda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Nyasaland, the Transvaal, South Africa, and Madagascar. The popularity of mancala in Africa is so great and so general as to justify Culin in calling it 'the national game of Africa'. Although J. Galt (p. 242) saw it played in the Cyclades in 1810, mancala has never taken root in the non-Islamic parts of Europe.

The wide distribution today of mancala games and the varieties of ways in which they are played make it difficult to trace the connections of the existing games, but their diffusion in Asia seems to have been from west to east, and in Africa from north-east to west and south, both pointing to an earlier practice of mancala in Egypt or Arabia, but we cannot say much more than that. Sir H. H. Johnston ('Survey of the Ethnography of Africa', in JRAI., xliii. 1913) has argued for a very early penetration from Egypt to [Page 159] Negro Africa of 'domesticated animals, all musical instruments superior to the musical bow and the drum, several types of games played with hollowed or divided boards and counters, and a good many Egyptian notions about religion', and in support of this view is the fact that mancala II boards existed in Egypt in the Empire Age (c. 1580-1150 B.C.), but we have no means of filling the gap between this and the next appearance of the mancala II board in Ceylon during the early centuries A.D. and in Arabia before the time of Muhammad. On the other hand, there are indications that the mancala III and IV games spread from southern Arabia by the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb or the southern end of the Red Sea to the opposite African shore, to Abyssinia and Somaliland and thence inland to Kenya and Uganda, and southwards to Zanzibar and Southern Africa. In later times, Muhammadanism has carried mancala II to most countries to which its religion and culture have extended.

In Syria, Egypt, and West Africa generally, mancala II is played by men, women, and children, men usually only playing with men, and women with women. Among the Tamils of south India, in Ceylon, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines, mancala II is predominantly a women's game and only played by men in less civilized or more remote regions. In central, east, and southern Africa, mancala IV is almost entirely a man's game. As Driberg (p. 114) says: 'women very rarely play and then only among themselves, and they play it not with much skill or enjoyment, but apparently in more trivial moods, inconsequentially, in the intervals of gossip.'

Most observers of the mancala games of the Old World regard them as primarily a form of recreation which can be played after the day's work is finished, during the midday rest, or when rain prevents work. There seems in Africa to be no season of the year when the game is specially appropriate, but in Ceylon it is most played at the season of the New Year. Many people will not play mancala after sunset, but this may be true of other board-games. Some of the closest observers of mancala in the Old World assert that the game has no social or religious associations. On the other hand, Herskovits (b, 34) has found a semi-religious significance attached to mancala in the West Indies and, most markedly, in the Surinam Bush, Dutch Guiana: 'here it is definitely associated with death; it is the game which is played in the House of Mourning to amuse the spirit whose body is awaiting burial. The play is carried on during the day and this is why the game is one to be played in the daylight hours only.' He suggests that these beliefs were brought by slaves from West Africa and that they point to an earlier attitude towards mancala which is now obsolete or forgotten in Africa.

Last update January 10, 2010