Things we think about the least can often be the most important. The education of our children begins long before they ever enter a school. We teach them what to eat and how to eat it. We teach them nursery rhymes, songs and games. These are the first things a child learns and the last thing an adult remembers in old age. They stick with us like glue, become a part of us and determine how we look at the world.
As a school teacher I work with children of all ages and see how they learn and what they learn from K-12th grades. Oftentimes, I learn as much as I teach. Recently I was in a 4th grade classroom and the children were curious about my chewstick. Due to time constraints I don’t always have time to do a full lesson on chewsticks, but the conversation quickly went south when the child wanted to know if I was from Africa. To be frank, I get that question all the time and usually have an insightful answer. That was not the case today. Before I could respond the child wanted to know if we had food in our country because, as far as he knew, we were all starving over there.
I didn’t take offense at the question, but I questioned the logic behind it, that there could be countries in the world where millions of people live and don’t have food. It’s not logical, but it’s what he sees on T.V. everyday. I say all of this to illustrate a point. If we do not inform ourselves, we cannot inform our children and they are left to paint a picture of the world based on the information they receive through the media. Their worldview, in the end, will be no broader than that of Donald Trump and his ilk.
In this same classroom, I noted they had a version of Monopoly for the children to play, called Monopoly Here & Now: The World Edition. What caught my attention is that there were no South American, African or Caribbean cities, as if Canada, the U.S., Europe and a few Asian cities made up the entire world. It says, right on the box that the cities were picked based on a poll. One has to wonder who was polled? There are 2 versions I know of that focus on African cities, namely Lagos, Nigeria and Capetown, S.A., but I have to wonder if this is a good thing. Monopolies are outlawed in the U.S., so why would we want to encourage the development of monopolies in Africa?
When I was growing up I loved to play Monopoly. It was a lot of fun. We usually never finished a game, but it was fun going around the board buying up pieces of property and waiting for people to land on them, so we could collect rent and if we were lucky, break their bank. Monopoly only has one goal, to be the big winner with ALL the property and ALL the money. At that point it’s not much fun anymore, because you own everything and nobody else can even afford to continue play.
Children learn a lot from T.V. and other media outlets, but they learn just as much, if not more, from the games they play. When I first started working with children it became obvious to me that Monopoly was not a good game to use as a teaching tool. I used it for a limited time as I fed them information that would allow them to play other games, like oware, The Black Community Game and The Afrika Puzzle Map Game. All games have goals and rules. The rules are structured, in order to make it challenging to achieve the goal. Everyone likes to play challenging games, as long as there’s an equal chance that any one of the players can win. A combination of skill and luck make games especially enjoyable. Some games have more of one than the other or may be exclusively based on luck or skill. Monopoly and The Black Community Game require a combination of skill and luck, while Oware and The Afrika Puzzle Map Game require more skill than luck.
Whether it takes more skill or luck to play a game determines the level of engagement of the players. The rules to games determine the ultimate goal of the game. The rules also determine what it takes to achieve said goal. The steps it takes to play the game can have a long-lasting effect on the players. Children’s attitudes and perspective are shaped and molded by the games they play.
Oware and a number of related versions on the basic theme are all over Africa. In Ethiopia fathers make the boards and give them to their sons, for use when they get married. In the Congo the game has been used to end internecine strife. Introduced by one of the great leaders of the Congo, it became synonymous with him. In Uganda it’s called omweso and is played by the Kabaka during life and death deliberations in his palace. It’s a game that doubles as a calculator and can have as few as 6 holes, in 1 row or as many as 160 holes in 4 rows.
Oware has always occupied a prominent role in society being regarded as a game of the Kings of Asante and Denkyira. Warri is the Akan word for being married. The folklore behind the name oware is an Ashanti legend, which states a man and a woman wanted to have more time to play the game oware so they decided to get married.
Versions of oware have been documented in more than 100 countries and go back over 3,000 years to ancient Egypt, Sumer and Troy. They continue to be played on every continent, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. In order to win Monopoly and oware one person must end up with all of the money and property or seeds, in the case of oware. The difference is in how this is accomplished. In Monopoly it’s O.K. to purposely bankrupt your opponent. In oware and opponent who runs out of seeds must be fed by their opponent in a legal move, if possible. If and only if it’s not possible to make a legal move that feeds ones opponent, the game is over. That’s when the counting begins, as players reset the board and see who has “extra” seeds.
Oware is the world’s oldest board game and counting tool, as well. It’s affiliated with calculus, which means counting bead and the abacus, which is no more than counting beads on sticks. In fact, it’s the oldest form of abacus, as well. It’s use has been documented in nearly every country in Africa, much of Asia and the entire Caribbean, as well as North and South America. More versions of the game, including the 2, 3, 4 and 6 row versions have been documented across the African continent, particularly in Ethiopia and Congo, where more versions are played than anywhere else.
The Black Community Game is based on cooperative economics and community development. Without beating anyone over the head, The Black Community Game promotes peace-in-the-hood and community development at the same time. It’s message is an important one, as our children are deluged with capitalist dreams and goals. Cooperation and self-help are not only in short supply, they’re rarely spoken of, as the current government has been top loaded with capitalists, more concerned about their own bottom line, than the good of the country.
Last, but not least, there’s a game produced by the late Kwaku Amenhotep, in the late 70’s, known as the Afrika Puzzle Map Game. As our children are given no positive way to look at Africa the most prominent images they do see are of starving Ethiopian children. Their relationship with Africa is negative, to say the least. To call them African is one of the worst insults possible. Many immigrants from the Caribbean teach this to their children using sayings like, “You can be anything you want in America. Just don’t be poor.” In America this translates to, just don’t be African.
The Afrika Puzzle Map Game was one of the best teaching tools available to me, in the late 70’s, when I wanted to teach children about Africa. It quickly dawned on me that there were a number of problems in relating African folktales. First of all there was a language barrier, in terms of the names of the characters. Then there was lack of knowledge of the countries and proper pronunciation of their names. Once those major obstacles were overcome there was still a difference in perspective, landscape, flora and fauna that made it nearly impossible to teach African folklore, without properly setting the stage. The Afrika Puzzle Map Game was a welcome tool I could use to orient the children to the various African countries and begin the process of familiarizing them with the names, languages and folklore of Africa. The game was pure genius and a welcome tool in teaching children about the continent of Africa and its peoples.
Many people say the only kinds of games we can give our children have to have murder and mayhem as the final objective. This is not what I’ve experienced over the years. I’ve introduced to a number of games and activities where no one dies, yet they enjoy the activity, just as much, if not more than any computer game. Teachers today are struggling with the idea of arming themselves in school, just to make it through the day. Why is it that this is so important in the U.S., but not in Canada or even Mexico? In the “most advanced nation in the world” guns and gun violence in schools, is a major problem, while less advanced nations don’t have this problem? In fact, Japan doesn’t even have a need to track the number of shootings, because it amounts to 1/year, for a country of 120 million, that’s highly urbanized! Something’s wrong in America, not just with the games people play, but with the access to firearms, in general. Maybe giving our children different games can begin a process of lowering the death toll. It worked with oware in the Congo, maybe it can work here too.