In Mauritania, in the Sahara desert I found a nomadic game called Seig.
Seig is a game of mathematical strategy traditionally played by women and reflects many aspects of nomadic life such the nomads highly developed oral culture and through use of easily found materials saving space and weight on long desert journeys.
I watched and played Seig with many different groups of women to fully understand the game. On my 4 th attempt to film Seig being played I visited the desert with; Oumoukeltoume, Soya, Khouraichiya and Soukeina.
From the desert to the city, Seig is one of few nomadic pastimes that is still upheld and remains relatively unchanged in the rapidly developing capitol of Mauritania, Nouakchott.
Seig in Hassania means ribs and it is thought that the game was originally played with the ribs of an animal such as a goat of sheep.
Players use easily found materials to play Seig. There are 4 play materials used to play Seig, 3 of which are very easily found almost anywhere in nomadic life of the Sahara desert. The main materials are:
Sand, used to create the play field.
12 Small twigs, representing the pieces of team 1.
12 Shells or dried camel droppings to represent the pieces of team 2.
8 Seig sticks made from wood or animals ribs used as a random number generator to determine movement of the pieces.
The play field of Seig is played in the sand, the most abundant material to be found in the Sahara desert and is called Librah. The board is fashioned by hand into a mound next to the seated players about 10cm high, 70cm long and 20cm wide. It's a beautifully simple construction looking like miniature sand dunes. Once the mound has been created 12 finger width grooves are made across the width of the board. 2 rows of 12 finger-sized cavities are then made side by side along the length of the board at its summit called the upper field. 12 finger-sized cavities are also made along either side of the mound that are called the lower field. The result is a beautifully simple and aesthetically pleasing filed of play that is reminiscent of the sand dunes that surround the players.
One team elects to play with pieces made from small twigs broken down from desert trees or bushes into 12 sticks about 5cm long. These Small Twigs are then placed in each of the 12 cavities along one lower fields of Sand Board.
Shells or Dried Camel Droppings
The opposing team elects to use either Shells or Dried Camel Droppings as their pieces depending which are most readily available. Shells are generally found at a particular height above sea level throughout the desert, but may be obscured by high sand dunes. Nomads of the desert are seldom without a camel so it is quite easy to find a Dried Camel Dropping when the need arises.
Seig is the name given to the game but is also the name of the central play objects of the game; the Seig Sticks. The 8 Seig Sticks are smooth rounded sticks of wood about 24cm long. These wooden sticks are the modern equivalent of the original animal's ribs. One side of each stick is plain white whilst the opposite side is black and often carved into with some traditional nomadic decorative design. Depending which way they land determines how many places to move the pieces. It is these Seig Sticks that represent the movement of the pieces that move along the board of the game.
There are 2 main versions of the Rules for Seig; Tagent and Boutlimit. Both sets of rules have a long string of addendums and contra influence over the direction of the game.
Seig is played with 2 teams of 2 or 3 players per team. Each player must throw the Seig Sticks to the ground at least once before passing them to the next player in an anti clockwise direction. This means that all players on one team with throw before the next team.
A team must attempt to move as many their pieces to the end of the board and take as many of the opposing team's pieces along the way. At the end of the game the team that still has any pieces is the winner. However, what seems simple at first unveils as a highly complex set of rules and contra rules unfolding into a myriad of mathematical technicalities that players resolve through engaging and heated debate.
For the first round of the game one of the Seig Sticks is removed until a "Seig" is performed with the seven Seig Sticks. The game continues with 7 Seig Sticks until the first "Seig" throw is performed. This "Seig" unlocks the proceeding of the game and allows the first legal move to be played.
A "Seig" throw is when all but one of the Seig Sticks lands facing up with the same colour. Players cry "Seig" together when this throw has been performed.
Once the game has been unlocked the remaining Seig Stick is added to the other 7.
When the first "Seig" has been thrown one piece in the team's Lower Field is released and moved one place forward onto the Upper Field. A mark in the sand is made next to the piece's original position in the Lower Field, to show that is has been released. All subsequent "Seig" throws will release and move a piece forward one place along the Lower Field only.
If a player throws "Seig" she must throw the Seig Sticks again to see how many more places she may move the piece.
At the beginning of the game a player who throws all white or all black also unlocks the game, but this time she releases 7 of her team's pieces in one go, a particularly advantageous beginning to make in the game. The player must also throw again to see how far she may move any of the released pieces.
Now that the game has got off to a start the teams begin to move their pieces. After throwing a "Seig" or a 4 a player must throw again. The outcome of each throw is determined by counting the number of white sides facing up as follows:
1. "Seig" Releases a piece in the Lower Field, moves it 1 place + throw again.
2. If it is the first throw of a turn 1 piece can be moved 2 places. If thrown after any other throw during the turn all the player's throws during the turn are negated accept for the releasing action of "Seig".
3. Add 3 to the number of places pieces can be moved.
4. Add 3 to the number of places pieces can be moved + throw again.
5. Add 5 to the number of places pieces can be moved.
6. Add 6 to the number of places pieces can be moved.
7. "Seig" Releases another piece, moves it 1 place plus throw again.
8. Releases 8 pieces in the Lower Field + throw again.
The throws are cumulative so that 1 piece may be moved as many places as have been added together from the throws made. A player may elect to subdivide the moves but only in divisions of each throw that has been made. For example if a player throws a 4 then a 3 the player may move one piece 7 places or 2 pieces 4 and 3 places respectively.
Pieces move along the board in an S shape configuration; First along the team's own Lower Field and Upper Field, then along the opposing team's Upper Field before finally descending and moving along the opposing team's Lower Field. When a piece reaches the end of the opposing Lower Field it remains on the board and can no longer move. The following contra rules apply:
If all the team's pieces have been released from their own Lower Field, pieces that reach the opposite side continue to circle the opposing Lower and Upper Field.
A 2, 3 or 4 must be thrown to move down into the opposing team's Lower Field.
A team may not have more than 1 of their pieces occupying a place on the board.
When a throw permits a player to move a piece to land on the place of an opposing piece, she may take the opposing piece. The following contra rules then apply:
Players may not take pieces in the first and last position of the Upper Fields, but may cohabit the position on the board.
Players cannot take pieces in their own Lower Field.
When moving in the opposing Lower Field a player may only take pieces by throwing a 2.
It is an uncommon outcome, but the team that manages to take all the opposing team's pieces, during the movement across the board, wins the game.
In most cases each team will have some surviving pieces that have now passed into the opposing team's Lower and Upper Fields. At this point neither team can take pieces from the other team. The players now place their remaining pieces in the middle of the board. The players no longer move pieces but may take an opposing piece out of the game each time they throw a 4. The team that manages to take all the opposing team's pieces wins the game.
The nomadic women love to get together and talk, but it is during the play of Seig where we see how much they enjoy a vivacious oral exchange which decides much of the outcome of the game. Playing Seig is a relaxing time for women to get together in the desert, drink tea and generally have a good time socialising. The game becomes entwined in gossip and general subjects that often grows to a crescendo as their voices battle it out across the play field. There are also very few occasions that women and men can mix in this society and Seig provides an accepted meeting point of gender. Men may bring gifts to the women while they play Seig, and the women may graciously accept as part of a light exchange of appreciation for one another.
Seig demonstrates how a wonderfully educational game can be easily transported saving valuable nomadic energy, but also shows us the strong social bond of nomadic women as they come together to relax, socialise and drink their all-important energising mint tea.