9 Interesting Facts About ‘Ayo Olopon,’ The Yoruba Mancala Game

Avo playing boards

The Yorubas of Nigeria have one of the richest cultures in West Africa and Africa as a whole. This
can be seen in their festivals, carnivals, gods, language and game play. The Yorubas love to have
fun. Although they might not have known it at the time, Yorubas were one of the earliest proponents
of a Mancala-type game, as we have come to know them today. Popularly called ‘Ayo,’ here are
some fun facts and expositions on this popular Yoruba game.


1. Locale

Image Credit: African Exponent
Ayo’ is an abridged version of ‘ayo olopon’ and was developed and is widely played by the Yorubas
in Nigeria. Given that this tribe is spread across different states in the country, it is amazing how they
all come together under the canopy of the same game. In fact, much reverence is given to a person who
excels at this game, just as much as a chess master today would be seen as a demigod in the midst of
men.


2. Etymology

Image Credit: PicDeer
The words that make up the name of the game are as significant as the game itself. 
The first word, ‘ayo’, means ‘seeds.’ This is in reference to the specially-crafted seeds used to play
this game. Other materials can be used when these seeds are not available, but the designated seeds
were considered standard practice even in the olden days. The second part of the name, ‘olopon,’
depicts a sort of container used to hold something. This does accurately describe the game, seeing as
it is played with seeds held in a wooden chamber.


3. Playing Time

In the Yoruba culture, ayo MUST only be played in the evenings
The Yorubas pride themselves on hard work and diligence, so much that they would not tolerate
seeing a man lazing around when he should be up and about. Thus, they have reserved the day
time for work, which is mostly agriculture, and in the evenings they enjoy the game.  Any man
seen doing otherwise would be regarded with scorn and tagged a lazy person.


4. Players

This game can only accommodate two players at a time – no more and no less. Depending
on the score line, the players will be called ota or opeA player who has the upper hand in the
game is called “ota,” which literally means ‘bullet’ while his opponent will be referred to as
“ope,” literally translating to ‘knowledgeable.’ When a person is passing by two people playing
this game, it is customary to greet the players by saying “Mo ki ota, mo ki ope o,"” which means
“I greet the winning side, and I salute the losing party too.”  To this greeting, only the ota, player
with the winning hand at that point, can respond.


5. Cultural Significance

Unlike today when we have cinemas, concerts, restaurants and other forms of entertainment around,
ayo olopon provided one of the ideal means of not just entertainment, but bonding between the men.
This was back in the days when men were expected to go farming and hunting while their wives
cooked and tended to the children. Therefore, these men would head out in the day to bring back
food while resting with a game of ayo in the evening as their wives made dinner.
Speaking of bonding, ayo also provided a means for the men in a village to get to know one another
better. A standard ayo olopon spot saw different men gather for a chance to challenge one another
while also sharing experiences of the day, telling jokes, or drinking palm wine.


6. Rules

The rules of ayo olopon are quite simple, but applying them to gain the upper hand is quite
technical. Each player has six pots on their side, and these pots contain four seeds each.
From there on, this series of steps happen:
  • The first player starts by picking up all the four seeds and distributing them (one per hole) as they move through the pots in a right-hand (counter-clockwise) movement.
  • This movement might see them cross into the opponent’s side or stay on theirs, depending on which pit they pick their starting seeds from.
  • Each player gets one turn. As soon as the distribution move above terminates, it becomes the turn of the next player
  • This goes on till a player finds a way to ensure their last seed lands in a pit on their opponent’s side which brings the tally of the seeds in such a pit to 2 or 3 (less than four, but more than one). They are entitled to capture all of those seeds as theirs.
  • The game continues till there are no moves left, and the player with the most seeds win.



7. Educational Significance

Mathematical Prowess

It might not have been obvious at the time, but this game was also of immense importance to
developing strong arithmetic skills. This went beyond simple addition and subtraction, but also
made the players see moves ahead of the one they were making to determine which one will
yield a desired outcome.


8. Parallel Comparisons

Chess and Checkers Use Similar Skills

In some ways, ayo olopon bears close similarities to both chess and checkers. 
For one, players of the game who have achieved great mastery were often revered throughout
the village and neighboring towns. Likewise, there are slight modifications to the rules of the
game by area – just like we have for checkers. Finally, it is a game of strategy that often includes
‘feeding’ an opponent’s side to give a better chance at capturing their pieces, which brings chess
to mind.


9. Global Adaptations

Image Source: ResearchGate
Although there is no record of where the mancala game first came about, it has spread across
the world using multiple names.  Some call it Ayo, some call it Warri, and others refer to it as
Awala., Many other cultures have their own concepts of the game too.  No matter where it is
played, though, it still retains its fun nature and tendency to foster togetherness among a group of people.
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