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The rebirth of Omweso

By Vision Reporter

Added 7th December 2012 04:02 PM

The country, her people and traditions have come full circle. We look at our heritage and examine the aspects that make us truly Ugandan. Rebecca Nalunga explores the place of the board game Omweso.

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The country, her people and traditions have come full circle. We look at our heritage and examine the aspects that make us truly Ugandan. Rebecca Nalunga explores the place of the board game Omweso.

The country, her people and traditions have come full circle. We look at our heritage and examine the aspects that make us truly Ugandan. Rebecca Nalunga explores the place of the board game Omweso.

All civilised societies have a way of unwinding and thus the saying: “All work without play….” The board name commonly known as omweso or omweisho cuts across almost all tribes in Uganda and was played by all age groups. It is believed to have been introduced to Uganda with the occupation of the Bachwezi. They moved around with the boards, playing as they went along to relieve boredom.

Across the country, fl at rocks imprinted with the coordinated holes of this game have been found as proof of its popularity ages ago. The game is played using 62 black pebbles, which are actually berries from the omuyuki tree (Mesoneurum welwitschianum). These berries are very hard and are called empiki in Luganda. Basoga call the game vulumula but the same rules apply.

Among the Luo tribes in northern Uganda, where it was referred to ascoro or soro, the match starts with both players picking and dropping the berries simultaneously, until one overpowers the other and then the game can offi cially begin with each taking turns. It was known as ailesit and later amwesor among the Itesot in eastern Uganda.

In Buganda, the king and prime minister was supposed to be good at playing omweso. Those skills would give them an edge over everyone else in the kingdom as the game sharpened focus and calculation. It also provided a chance to evaluate subordinates and potential leaders. Palace visitors played it to occupy themselves as they waited their turns to see the king.

According to M.B Nsimbi in his 1970 paper, Play in Uganda: Omweso, a Game People play in Uganda, the entrance of European religion, culture and the colonisation of Uganda caused omweso to be considered backward. It was mostly played in rural areas for some time. It only regained attention towards independence when people begun to be proud of their culture again.

Strategy and speed

The board has 32 holes, 16 on each side. The berries are then put in the holes with first row on each side holding four each at the start. The two players are supposed to sit opposite each other and even have supporters. Each player has control over the 16 holes on his side of the board.

The point is to pick the pebbles and move them from hole to hole at a terrific speed, having already calculated a particular number one would like to have advantage over their opponent.


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                                                               Kabalega's Omweso board

A game is won if one is the last player who can make a legal move. This can happen when one captures all the opponent’s pebbles or reduces him one seed in each hole.

“As a player you have to be able to count extremely fast, that is the reason we pick and drop at a terrific speed,” says Moses. He adds that the aim is to teach mathematical skills and sharpen concentration, and likens it to the modern day chess.

Prints in the sand

Learning the board game as children, it was drawn in the sand and for pebbles the players used stones or different colored coffee beans. The first board is very easy and has onlysix slots. The next stage is slightly complex having about 16 slots.

“These, we used to draw in the sand on our way to fetch water. What would start out as a game of two would soon grow into a big group of neighbourhood children cheering on the players. We would get so engrossed in the game and our parents, after waiting for hours for us to come home would follow the sound of the loud cheering and find us with jerrycans empty.

"Then there would be the general sound of canes later that evening. That’s one of the reasons children were not allowed to play the addictive game,” says Moses.

“In Buganda youngsters were not allowed to play it because it is very addictive,” says Moses an ardent fan and player. The board was kept by the father in the home and woe unto any child who dared even touch it.

Girls banned

Girls were also denied the pleasure of playing omweso, and to this day it has remained a predominantly men’s game. This is because the sitting or squatting positions were considered indecent for women. The players have to squat or sit astride a bench for comfort and easy access to the board.

Sometimes the players swear at each other and some even go as far as using profanities just to distract their opponent. Those words were unsuitable for a girl to hear, let alone learn and use. Girls were also traditionally expected to be busy with home chores.

They were told that playing omweso would cause their breasts not to grow. Nsimbi wrote that only princess and the king’s wives could play and only among themselves. It was feared that if they mixed freely with the males while playing their morals would be compromised.

Changing times

Back in the day, this game was played in the evenings at drinking places after a hard day’s work, unlike these days when it’s played as early as 10:00am. Youths can be seen on the streets or at verandahs playing it. It has come from being a game of relaxation to a pastime for idlers.

This game has no time limit and a match can easily take up a whole morning, evening or afternoon or even a whole day if the players are very skilled. In that case the game is carried into the following day. “Our parents played for simple prizes like chicken. A wife would be less than amused to see her husband’s friend claim his prize over a game she knew nothing about.

But these days there are cash prizes starting from sh10,000. This remains strictly between the opponents,” explains Moses. These days a referee can be appointed, but there might as well be none because the players are the ones who set the rules for him to follow including how to cheat.

However, children these days do not have time to pay Omweso. ‘Apart from the fact that playing on the ground is considered dirty and backward, other modern board games like ludo, chess, scrabble and monopoly have taken over. Video games are the order of the day and so is watching movies and hanging out with friends.

Back again

However, in an interesting twist, Omweso is now easier to come across than it was some decades ago, probably because of the very board games that pushed it out of favour. The new games like Ludo took over the attention of idle youth at taxi parks, shop verandahs and boda boda stages and once they got bored with Ludo, many of them fell back to Omweso for that thrill of a well fought battle of the wits.

Nowadays you can bump into hawkers selling the boards and the dried berries and groups with players like Moses arguing away in public places. Regional and district omweso clubs keep the game alive.

Omweso in other cultures

All across Africa, from coast to coast, there were versions of this game and they are known around the world under the name mankala. Various versions of the game can also be found in South America and the West Indies and Asia with their respective names.

In all these cultures the game is credited for improving memory mathematical and motor skills. Mankala games have been widely researched and written about and tournaments have become a popular way of preserving the skills and interest in the board game.

A digital version of the game was also developed to enable players compete online.

(First published in Discovery Magazine (Sunday Vision) March 18, 2012: Vision Group Resource Centre)

The rebirth of Omweso

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