Mancala – Africa’s Oldest Game


By Dawn Denton

Mancala – one of the oldest games in the world. Ancient Hindu mythology mentions it. In Mongolia and the West Indies people have played it for centirues. Mancala is celebrated in Indonesia and Hawaii and played across the Middle East.

Regional Names

Mancala also has a very special place in communities across Africa where it has regional names:

Aweet – in Sudan by the Dinka tribe
Bao – Tanzania, southern part of Malawi and west towards Angola
Kombe – northern Kenyan coast and on the small Kenyan island of Lamu
Mancala – Egypt, Tanzania, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zaire and Malawi
Mongale – along the east coast and in Mombasa
Mongola- upper Congo
Soro and coro – northern Uganda and a derivation in areas of Zimbabwe
Wari, or owari – Nigeria, Niger and Ghana.
Weri – Uganda by the Jopadhola

Origins of Mancala

Mancala comes from the Arabic word naqala which means “to move”. Sociologists and researchers are still not sure where the game originated. It may have been traders who took the game with them on their long journeys and introduced it to new societies.

Today Mancala reflects the communities in which it is played. Men enjoy the game in most places – and as serious competition. But sometimes children and the elderly play it for entertainment. Sometimes it is played with deliberate speed to create confusion. But most of the time is played with intentional pensivitivity and, thoughtful skill that wins. The game, its name and its regional features are expressions of the values that are important to different groups of people.

Setting Up to Play

1. Two players sit opposite each other.

2. In front of them they have two parallel lines of six holes each. These holes can be scooped out of the ground, made from a wooden board, carved out of stone or even empty egg cartons – anything that allows for two rows of six holes each.

3. The row in front of each player is their own row.

4. Each player will need to place a cup to the right of their row of holes to be used as their store.

5. Each player has twenty-four counters. All the counters will have the same value, so it doesn’t matter if they are different colours or shapes. They can be stones, seeds, buttons or anything small with smooth edges to fit easily into the holes. Don’t use marbles as they roll around too much.

6. The players put four counters in each of their own holes, but nothing in their store.

7. The players choose who is to start the game.

How to Play

8. Player A picks up all the counters in one of their own holes, emptying the hole.

9. Player A places one counter from their hand into the next hole along from the hole they have just emptied, in an anti-clockwise circle. The next counter is placed in the next hole, and so on, (one per hole) moving along their own row of holes and then around to their opponent’s row of holes. This is called ‘sowing the seeds’

10. If Player A, while ‘sowing his seeds’, gets to his own store cup in the sequence of placing the counters in their holes, they place a counter in the cup as if it was a hole.

11. If Player A gets to the store cup of their opponent, they skip the store cup and continue along the row, placing the counters in holes, until their hand is empty of counters.

12. If the last counter in Player A’s hand is put into a hole with other counters, Player A gets to pick up that pile of seeds in the hole and play again – placing the first counter in the next hole, and then one counter per hole, in an anti-clockwise direction. This is repeated until the last seed is placed in an empty hole.

Goal of the Game

13. The idea of the game is to get all the counters in your personal store (to capture or ‘eat’ your opponent’s counters).

14. Player A goes to ‘sleep’ when they have placed their last counter in an empty hole.

15. Player B then has his turn.  Player B picks up a pile of counters in one of his own holes, and places each of the counters in a hole in an anti-clockwise direction, starting with the next hole along from the empty hole. They will also use their store cup as a hole in the sequence, and their opponent’s store cup is missed out.

16. If the last counter in a player’s hand is placed in his own store cup. He or she gets another go (a chain move). They pick up a pile of stones in a hole on their side and start again.


17. The game continues until one row is completely empty.

18. The winner is the person with the most counters in their store cup.

Mancala varies according to region, according to the name of the game, or the items used for counters, the number of holes in the sequence, and variations of missing out certain holes in the ‘seed sowing’ process.

This simple game is a wonderful source of entertainment and enjoyment. It has the simplest rules and needs the most basic of tools. In some of the most challenging environments in Africa, it brings people together.  It is in Mancala that people find joy, laughter and a spirit of community.

Dawn A Denton

Dawn A Denton

Podcaster, writer, blogger and trainer

And for the toddlers, you might want to try this craft activity


  1. Confused. I have 24 counters but I only use 4. When do I play the others (OR they always in my hand – 4 in the wholes and 20 in MY HAND when we start?)

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