If you’re looking for fun, strategic family games that are steeped in Caribbean heritage while also beautifully handcrafted works of art, look no further than the traditional games created by Caymanian artisans Deal Ebanks and his cousin Wray Banker.
Weekender had a chance to visit their booth at Camana Bay’s Farmers and Artisans Market, where they sell their work every Wednesday. The games are made from recycled wood and have a wonderful coffee table appeal which will surely impress your guests – and maybe even tear your children away from their video games.
Ebanks was born and raised in West Bay and grew up on Hell Road in one of Cayman’s original wattle and daub homes. He moved to Texas for a number of years before returning to the island after Hurricane Ivan. He got the idea to create the games after witnessing a visible change in Cayman’s culture, which he believed to be on decline. Thus, he was eager to inject some favorite childhood pastimes back into the culture so that Caymanians could reconnect with their roots.
“When I came back, I felt things had changed drastically,” he says. “I felt the culture had been exposed and I really took it to heart.”
The first game he demonstrates is called Warri, which is one of the world’s oldest games, originating in Africa more than 5,000 years ago. Warri, which means house, is believed to be derived from a type of abacus used in accounting and belongs to the family of Mancala pit-and-pebble strategy games from the Sudan region. The game spread throughout West Africa, and legend goes that some African Asante kings would challenge their generals to Warri games on gold boards before going into battle to make sure their minds were sharp. In other African societies, newly crowned kings were required to play Warri to demonstrate wisdom to their subjects. The game finally made its way to the Caribbean by slaves in the 17th century.
Ebanks remembers first seeing it in Cayman decades ago when Suzy Soto, then owner of the Tortuga Club Hotel (now Morritt’s Tortuga Club & Resort), brought it back for hotel guests to play after visiting one of the Lesser Antilles islands. The board game is still very popular in Antigua and Barbados and is considered the national game in both of those countries – there’s even a “National Warri Association” with regular tournaments and legions of dedicated players.
The board game consists of 14 cups (holes that have been carved into the wooden board). Each player is in charge of six cups, and two larger cups on either end of the board game represent each player’s home base. Each of the 12 cups begins with four seeds (also called “nickers”) and the direction of the play moves counterclockwise. There are slightly different rules for Warri depending on where you live, but Ebanks’s version requires each player to take turns moving the four nickers from one of their cups in consecutive moves (one nicker for one cup) starting on the next cup to their right until all six cups are emptied; the home cups act as storage for the nickers. The first person to clear all six of their cups wins, as the aim is to capture as many of your opponent’s pieces as possible.
“It’s a pretty unique game in itself,” says Ebanks.
Although a simple game on the surface, Warri is intellectually challenging and requires tactical and strategic thinking. In Africa it is still used to teach calculus and math, while universities in Europe and North America are developing computer game software based on the game. The game is also an ideal way to teach younger children how to count and learn simple sums, while also being a fun game of chance. As the player advances, he or she can see the benefit of timing, foresight and the importance of planning long-term strategies while also becoming aware of the principles of cause and effect.
Warri is guaranteed to give family members and friends of all ages hours of enjoyment while simultaneously help young players hone their problem-solving skills.
Ebanks and Banker make the games from recycled wood, usually from discarded breadfruit trees. The plank of wood is then chiseled with a wooden mallet. The nickers are small seeds from Cockspur trees which are scattered throughout the East End. Alternatively, brain coral can also substitute as nickers.
“The more you use them, the shinier they get,” he says. It takes the two of them anywhere from 15 to 20 hours to make each game, and they sell for $75 to $125, depending on the size of the board.
They also create table-top, coffee-table and bench versions.
A game that many Caymanians may remember is Gig. It is a twist on the classic spinning top that has undergone many variations since its origins thousands of years ago.
Although gigs are known through the Caribbean, they have different names and slightly different versions, depending on the country. Ebanks and Banker’s version is created with a rope that coils around the top end, and a sharpened nail which is screwed into the base. One person takes the rope (or Gig line) and uses it to propel or pitch the gig to the ground so that it hits the opponent’s spinning gig and breaks it in half. The goal is to “pop open,” “plug” or “bust open” the opponent’s gig, and those terms are used interchangeably, according to Ebanks.
He demonstrates his technique and likens his “pitch” to that of a cricket player. “For spinning gigs, the fun is really in perfecting your form. You have to have a good follow-through in order to bust that gig open. The gigs here in Cayman are known for their sharp, long nails, and we all want to bust or pop open someone’s gig, which we also call ‘pluggin,’ as in ‘let’s go plug some gigs!’ It’s a real Caymanian game.”
Ebanks recalls with delight playing in the streets as a young boy and the excitement at busting someone’s gig and pulling out the nail for keepsakes to add to his collection of acquired nails; the more nails you could capture, the better.
The game can also be played using a bull’s-eye on the ground, usually with a stone as a marker, and much like the game of marbles, the goal is to have yougr Gig knock the bull’s-eye out of place.
Handmade from the wood of discarded guava trees and carved with a Buck knife, a gig can take them anywhere from 12 to 50 hours to make, depending on how ornate it is. Ebanks sells them for between $20 and $350, and many people buy one as a collector’s item.
Other games on the roster include Quarto, which Ebanks describes as “Tic-Tac-Toe on steroids and a great game of strategy,” and handmade slingshots, which are “great for capturing iguanas on your property.” The slingshots are made from guava wood and surgical tubing, while the leather tongue is made from discarded shoe leather. “The guava wood is a super-strong wood,” Ebanks says, adding, “Recycling is a big part of my lifestyle. There are many objects that have so much more life in them; too many things are thrown away that could be re-used.”
For more information on these Caymanian games, visit the Farmers and Artisans Market on Wednesdays from 3 p.m., or contact Deal Ebanks at 926-4447 or [email protected].