In the days of the Pharoahs, who didn't have televisions, kings, queens and aristocrats used to gather around a small game board. In different parts of Africa and the Middle East the game was the same but the name was different. It was called Mbau in Angola, Pandi in India, Gisithi in Kenya and Poo in Liberia. In Ghana, as children who attended a recent workshop at the Museum of African Art learned recently, the game is called Owari, which means "he married."
"There's a legend that a long time ago in Ghana, a country in West Africa, a man and woman were playing this game," says instructor Patty Kaffee. "The game got so long and involved that they decided to get married, so they could play forever."
Nowadays in Africa, Kaffee tells the kids, everybody plays the game - kids and working-class people as well as royalty. "It's like hopscotch here."
Like hopscotch in its ubiquity, Owari differs in that it is played not with chalk on a sidewalk but with shells or beans on a rectangular board about the size of an egg carton. Kaffee shows thekids an antique game board carved to look like a reclining figure with 12 indentations on his belly. Then she shows them a folding version that businessman can carry in briefcases.
Kaffee fills each of the holes on the game board with four kidney beans and challenges nine-year-old J.S. Darby to a test game. The player who goes first, she explains, picks up the four beans from any of the holes on his side of the board. Then, moving to his right, around the board, he distributes one bean to each of the next four holes. If the last hole you put your bean in has any other beans in it, you pick them and distribute them, always moving to your right. If your last bean ends in an empty hole, your turn is finished. But before the next player starts his turn, both players look in the holes on their sides of the board to see if there are any holes with two or three beans. If there are, the players pick them up. At the end of the game, when there are no beans left on the board, the player with biggest pile of beans wins.
Egg cartons, Kaffee tells the kids after the game ends, seem to be made just for Owari, since they have twelve holes. Each kid has brought a rectangular cardboard egg carton, and Kaffee tells them to cut off the top, which will be used as the base. The lip, the excess cardboard that keeps the carton closed, also gets cut off. And if the egg carton has high separators between the holes that would get in the way during games, they should be trimmed.
"You could play with just a plain egg carton, but we've going to make them look more like the African game," says Kaffee.
In addition to the egg carton (which can't be styrofoam because paint won't stick to it), you need a sturdy piece of cardboard - the museum used pieces of packing boxes - the same length as the egg carton but a little wider. Small paper cups, white glue, paint, brushes and 48 kidney beans or similar markers are also needed.
First the kids brush glue on top of the egg carton top. Then they center the piece of cardboard on top of it and press down until the glue dries. Then they brush glue on the outside of the bottom of the egg carton and attach that to the cardboard base. Two small paper cups - one for eacy player's winnings - are glued to each side of the cardboard base. Then they paint the completed boards.
Tanya Turner, 13 chooses an orange-and-white motif. Brian Lester, eight, decorates his game in black and red. "You know, like in checkers," he explains.
"You're demonstrating one of the principles of African art," Kaffee tells them. "You all made almost the same thing, but everyone's looks a little different. In Africa, people made the same traditional things and pass the traditions down to their children and grandchildren, but each individual changes things a little."
Asthe transformed egg cartons are drying, Kaffee gives the kids a refresher course in Owari. There's a complex mathematical strategy involved in which hole you start with, says Kaffee, admitting that she doesn't know the secret. Tyra Jackson and Tiffany Bonds, both seven, start a game, which goes on for quite a while.
"It looks like you two are going to have to get married," says seven-year-old Peter Van Dien.