• Monday, May 27, 2024
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Survival of the skilful


It is a cool Friday evening in March and Baba Adeola and his friend are seen engrossed under a mango tree in front of his house, a sight that is very common in the neighbourhood in the evenings. After the day’s work, this group of semi-old men in their late 50s converge here to let off the steam over a game of Ayo. Two days before, Pa Adeboye was thoroughly beaten by Baba Adeola in a three-round game. Hence, this evening the duo is playing a new game over a bet of N5, 000.

“You are an ope,” says Baba Adeola, while challenging Pa Adeboye. “When did you start playing the game, you this young man?” asked Pa Adeboye defensively. “I will beat you thoroughly today. Do you think it is the same person who played with you few days ago that is playing now?” he boasts.

This is one of the side attractions of playing Ayo, a popularly Yoruba board game, which has endeared it to many people across centuries.

A carved wooden, fairly rectangular object with a total of 12 circular carved-out pockets arranged in two rows, six pockets in each row, is what has made adults recall their childhood habits while playing. Wherever the game is played, there is bound to be intrigues as players scheme to outdo each other.

The Ayo board is not seen as just a common wood, as over the years it has become an artefact with carved holes for game pieces. The carved details add much more interest to the overall appearance of the game itself.

Along both sides of the game board are two people. Their features are often very detailed, especially those on the face. There is also a rather larger head on the short side of the game board that is about seven inches long, where you gather your winnings.

Ayo boards are usually found in town squares, explains Tola Adeoya, a renowned player in Owode area of Oyo town. They are carved out of large tree trunks. “The game is played with two people, each person sitting on either of the longer sides of the board. Four seeds are placed in each of the carved wooden pockets.  The row of six pockets closest to each player is considered theirs to try to keep filled with seeds. The players take turns by picking up all of the seeds from one of the pockets and distributing one seed to each of the pockets in order. The first player to empty the other player’s six pockets wins the game,” Adeoya discloses.

However, it may be inferred that the way the game is played, face-to-face, reflects the values of the culture pertaining to interactions among people. The Yoruba people prefer interacting with others face-to-face, or directly, rather than sending messages through others. This value is revealed in the playing of Ayo.

Otherwise called Mankala or Mancala, a name derived from the Arabic word naqala, meaning “to move something around.”  Ayo is actually a general name for the many variations of the game that are played throughout Africa, as well as many other parts of the world.

The names of the game boards are usually determined by what type of seed is used for playing, and game boards may vary as far as the number of rows of pockets is concerned as well as slight variations in the rules.  The Yoruba people, however, refer to it as Ayo-ayo, meaning “real joy,” which distinguishes the male version, from those played by women and children.

Ayo is usually played during the day, after work. It is not just a game for the older folks; in fact, many young children learn to play it in order to sharpen their mathematics skills. It is often played by people of the same age group and gender, meaning men play with men, women play with women, and children play among themselves.

As a tradition in African society and the belief of male superiority, males, especially the elders often separate themselves from the women and children in order to display their masculinity and authority among themselves.

Abiodun Orelaja, a farmer, states that Ayo is not just a recreational game, but has spiritual significance. “It is played in a house of mourning to amuse the spirit of the dead before it is buried. It is very unlucky to play the game at night, as the spirits will want to join in and may carry off the living at the end of the game. Each village would have two types of boards, one with a flat top and one with a curved top, a bit like a banana. When a man dies the villagers would play on the board that was not his favourite, so that his spirit would not want to join in,” he explains.

In addition, Orelaja clarifies that relationships are said to be an important part of the Yoruba culture, and the relationship between men and women may be reflected in the game of Ayo as a piece of art. “For the Yoruba, life is an aggregate of relationships – relationships with other persons, with nature, with disease and death, and with one’s own past, as well as one’s personal destiny,” he adds.

Nowadays, Ayo played worldwide and its values are not upheld or recognised.