Strategic gains

21st September 2001 at 01:00
The TES is sponsoring a new schools championship based on an ancient game in which thinking mathematically helps players make the right move. Victoria Neumark explains.

Two children sit opposite one another. Their heads are bent in concentration. One picks up a handful of beans and scrupulously counts them down into small cups - "houses" - set in a wooden board. She repeats the process until, with a little cry of triumph, she scoops out some beans from her opponent's side and drops them into her own cache. Ruefully, the boy opposite her rubs his eyes and starts counting round the board. "You haven't won yet," he reminds her. They are playing oware, an ancient African game played around the world in many variants, and now as a schools championship in this country with the help of The TES and the charity Link Community Development.

Oware is a game with many mathematical demands, believes Jenny Brown, a maths teacher at Toot Hill School in Bingham, Nottinghamshire. She uses the game in her Friday maths clubs. "It's great across the ability and age ranges," she says. "For younger ones and the less able, the counting and counting on which it requires is useful practice. For older pupils, the forward-thinking and strategy get them going on analysing problems in steps. It is using and applying maths, set in a multicultural context."

Jenny Brown first saw oware at a maths fair in York, organised as part of Maths Year 2000. But it was when she went down to London's MY2000 maths fair that she and a colleague got really hooked. They saw the then oware champion, a 13-year-old who was winning speed games against all comers, in between munching bags of crisps. "It was such fun," she remembers, "but you could also tell that he was thinking logically. You can't just think of your own move in oware; you have to think of your opponent's move and your own answering move. You have to anticipate strategy.

"Last term I used to have a games lesson every two weeks for the lower ability sets. Oware would fit in well in there: you develop all the social skills needed for games-playing, plus the need to talk mathematically and commnunicate about a joint task."

What about higher-ability students: can the game be mathematically interesting for them? "The great thing is that oware can get more and more complicated. There are loads of different rules, you can complicate in any way you like. I'd say to my top-set students: 'here's the game, now see if you can work in pairs to think of a rule to make it harder'."

As teachers and pupils begin the autumn term with new initiatives, including the key stage 3 roll-out of the National Numeracy Strategy, the oware championships offer an entertaining way to set mathematical aims in a multicultural context.

Origins of an ancient game Oware is one of the oldest games in the world still being played. Some have speculated that it developed from a system of monitoring grain storage. Carvings related to the game have been found in archaeological sites from ancient Egypt and from the Ashanti kingdoms in Ghana, as well as in Zimbabwe and the Sudan. In Ghana it was the sport of kings and was played on a board in the shape of a royal stool embellished with gold. In the Twi language of the Ashanti "warri" means "married", and there may be a connection.

Oware went with African peoples as they migrated. The slave trade took it to the Caribbean and South America, where it has been recorded in societies set up by escaped slaves in the jungles of Guyana.

Nowadays the game is known by several different names in different places: three versions - Abapa, Nam-Nam and Nampoudo - are found in Ghana alone. In Nigeria, the Yoruba version of the game is called Ayo. In Igboland, the game is called Okwe. In Antigua and Barbados, Warri is a highly popular and competitive sport. But it is current in Asia, too: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines all play variants with different names.

The numbers of hollows (houses) varies in different places. Seven houses each is popular in Asia, six is the variant chosen for The TESLink competition, and five is known as well. Boards can be fancy as you like: there are 32 houses in one version. Oware is part of a class of games known as "pit and pebbles", "count and capture" or "mancala".

Many inexpensive computer versions are available, some allowing for several rule variations. There is Oware! (for DOS and Windows) and Awale (for Windows and Macintosh). Such games are ideal for the classroom use to focus pupils on arithmetical skills. The simplicity of the playing pieces and ease of manufacture are enticing; players could use an egg carton and pebbles.

Schools Oware Championship The TES has joined up with Link Community Development (LCD) to sponsor the TESLink Oware Championship. Individual schools are invited to run their own tournaments and select one or two pupils to attend the National Championship at the Commonwealth Institute on October 20. October is Black History Month, an initiative which started about five years ago on a small scale in libraries and museums, Black History Month's aims are to celebrate cultural diversity and the longevity of the Black and Asian presence in the UK. It took off with the Windrush celebrations last autumn (see website); now there is a wide range of events around the country. LCD hopes to raise funds for Link's educational projects in Uganda, Ghana and South Africa as well as introduce children to a new skill and raise awareness of global issues. The Commonwealth Institute is the venue for the championship: ideal, given its work with young people in the field of cultural diversity and global citizenship.

Many schools are beginning to focus on global citizenship, which becomes statutory at KS3 from September 2002; Jenny Brown was one of 47 teachers who have just returned from summer placements sponsored by LCD in Africa, ready to raise awareness of African culture in their UK schools. School life can only benefit from linking maths and an interest in the wider world.

* Free software (send $5pamp;p): Sapient Software P O Box 1009, Bolinas, CA 94924 - 1009, USA. E-mail: Websites: www.channel4.comblackhistorymapindex.html

A pack is available, including an explanation of the rules, how to construct a board and enter the competition. From Kate Griffin, Education Officer, Link Community Development, Unit 39, Kings Exchange Business Village, Tileyard Road, London, N7 9AH. Tel: 020 7691 1818. Fax: 020 7209 4167. E-mail: Web:

The oware game, as constituted for the championships Oware is a game for two players. The board is made from a thick, oblong piece of wood which has 12, hollowed-out holes. These are called 'houses'. The players sit facing each other and each player owns the row of six houses nearer to them.

The pieces are all alike and can be dried beans, stones or pebbles. They are called 'seeds'. There are 48 seeds. Players put the seeds they have captured into containers called 'end houses'.

The object of the game is to capture as many seeds as possible.

* Distribute the 48 seeds evenly in the 12 houses - four to a house * To make a move, pick up all the seeds in a house in your own row and move anti-clockwise around the board dropping the seeds one at a time in each house that you pass over until all the seeds are used up.

* If there are enough seeds, the move may come back to the house where you started. In that case don't put a seed in it but drop the seed in the next house.

* Players take it in turns to play and you must make a move on each turn.

* You can only capture a seed on your opponent's side.

* If the last seed you sow lands in one of your opponent's houses with only one or two seeds already in it (making it two or three seeds in total) you can then make a capture and put your opponent's and your seeds in your end house.

* If the house before the last also had only one or two seeds already in it (making it two or three seeds in total) you can capture these seeds as well.

* You can do this for each previous house as long as the row is still your opponent's and contains one or two seeds (with yours making a total of two or three).

* The first person to capture 25 seeds is the winner of the game.

* The first person to win five games is the winner of the match.

Making an Oware board * Cut the lid off an egg carton and paste it underneath the egg portion of the carton.

* Cut two separate egg sections and staple one on each end of the carton.

* Decorate with African motifs Ready-made Oware sets Boards, sets of seeds, manuals, contact the Oware Society, tel: 020 7498-3436; Fax: 020 7498-3436. E-mail: Web:

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now