I played my first game of Ohvalhu,
a version of mancala, in a refugee camp in the Maldives that housed victims of
the Christmas Eve 2004 Asian tsunami.
By firelight from the bonfire in
the centre of the camp, I sat with a middle-aged Maldivian woman who was the
village elder and champion player, and was trounced three times in a row as the
entire displaced population of the camp looked on.
Despite helpful mimed advice and the
occasional admonishment for an ill-considered move (I don’t speak Dhivehi, the
language spoken in the Maldives, but “tut tut” and “tsk” appear to be the same
in every language), I was on a serious losing streak.
And then I won a game and was
hooked. I played for the next two hours until a United Nations official, who
had brought me to camp on the remote island by sea plane, dragged me away.
Two years later, on a visit to
India, I saw a similar board for sale in a craft market in Bangalore. Called
Pallanguzhi in southern India, this board was made of recycled wood and had
tiny seashells for counting beads. I snapped it up for 450 rupees (about
It came with a set of instructions that
were so complicated and convoluted, I gave up and hid the board in a cupboard
where it has sat for several years.
So, it was with surprise and
delight that I discovered Cayman has its own version of the game and I was
going to get a chance to play it. Called waurie, or mancala, the game migrated
here from Barbados.
The National Gallery hosted its
first waurie tournament on 7 April, which attracted about 15 people.
Wray Banker, who along with his
cousin Deal Ebanks carves rustic waurie boards, described to first-timers and
experienced players the origins of the ancient game.
The earliest evidence of the game,
also known as a “sowing game” or “count
and capture game”, being played is in Ethiopia, where pieces of a pottery board
and rock cuts have been found and dated by archaeologists to between the 6th
and 7th Century AD.
The game goes by several different
names and a version of it exists in many countries and cultures throughout the
During last week’s tournament,
players sat at, or rather on, boards carved by Mr. Banker and Mr. Ebanks from
They carve the pits into the wood,
leaving enough room at either end for someone to sit at, then mount them on
sturdy legs, so they effectively become benches that double as board games.
“This one we found off Spanish
Cove, near Pappagallo’s,” said Mr. Banker, pointing at the bench/board on which
the finals of the tournament were eventually played.
The name “mancala” is Arabic for
“to move” and that’s the crux of the game – to move your beads, or shells, or
beans, or nuts, from one pit or hole to another and to try to finish your side
of the board before your opponent finishes his or hers.
Cayman rules for the game are as
follows: Each board has 12 pits and two home plates, so each of the two players
has six pits and one home plate. At the start of the game, each pit is filled
with four beads.
The first player picks up a handful
of beads from one of his six pits and places one bead in each pit, going
clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on what has been agreed.
If the player puts the last bead in
his home plate, then he gets another turn and repeats the exercise. If the last
bead goes into one of the pits, it is the opponent’s turn, and this continues
until one player ends up with a row of empty pits.
Winner of last week’s waurie tournament
was Harry Kinch, aged 12, who took on Gretchen Allen in the finals. The battle
came down to the wire, with just one single bead left on the board at the end
of the game.
And for the record, I did almost as
badly as my first few games in the Maldives, but thanks to other players having
to make an early departure, I made it to the semi finals, where young Mr. Kinch
proved, that like the Maldivian village elder, he was not going to show me any