Here in Mali, in the historian village of Kela, I discovered the ancient game of Awale was played by 2 powerful kings at a critical moment of decision making in the foundation of the Great Malian Empire.
In West Africa, Awale was not only a form of entertainment, but also an important decision making tool. Village chiefs and even kings would play Awale to calm their minds and bring themselves into a state of meditation. Once in this meditative state they could then concentrate on important problems, make poignant observations and make critical decisions. Decisions made during games of Awale were considered so important that they must be acted upon without fail.
History (Awale Kings Script)
In the time of our ancestors in the Mandingo kingdom of West Africa, lived the fearful king and sorcerer, Soumaoro Kante. No one in the kingdom was free to say or do what they wanted because Soumaoro used his might and magic to oppress the people who all lived in fear of his wrath.
Soumaoro made life so difficult, that the people of the land decided they must have a new king. In secret the people appointed the 3 wisest men in the land; Toumou Manian the Chief Griot, Seremani Farrassi and Manjou, to find Sunjata Keita, the lion prince, who they wanted to be their new king. The 3 wise men went in search of Sunjata, who was living in exile in the desert city of Nema, many days journey to the north. The 3 wise men found Sunjata in Nema and said:
"Great Sunjata we have been sent by all the people of Mandingo to look for you. The people plead for your help to save them from Soumaoro's merciless grip, you must come at once"
Sunjata had the support of the Mandingo people and also of his friend, the king of Nema who helped by giving Sunjata a fearless army. Yet Sunjata knew this alone was not enough to defeat Soumaoro. So Sunjata went to see a sorcerer who would help him against the magic of Soumaoro. The sorcerer told Sunjata:
"When you travel south to Mandingo you will find Soumaoro at the river Niger and as all great chiefs know, you must greet your enemy as a friend to know him better and find all his strengths and weaknesses."
With this Sunjata set off with his army to find Soumaoro. But Soumaoro was also using his magic and knew that he too should go to meet Sunjata at the river as a friend. Sunjata arrived at the river and just as his sorcerer had said, there he found Soumaoro.
Sunjata greeted Soumaoro as a friend:
"Good day friend, I am the lion prince come from Nema, may god be with you"
"Good day to you friend, I am the King of all Mandingo, I wish your good health"
They smiled and together they went to the capital of Kangaba where they sat under the great tree, and as all great chiefs do when important decisions are to be made, they continued their discussions while playing the meditative game of Awale.
First to play was Soumaoro. As he took the pieces and placed them one by one he spoke aloud and said:
"I am the champion of all Mandingo and no one can beat me."
Sunjata hid his anger and said nothing, but instead took this moment to make precise observations of Soumaoro and his army. When it was Sunjata's turn to play he knew what he should say to distract and enrage Soumaoro. Sunjata placed his pieces one by one and said aloud:
"No it is I the champion of all Mandingo, no one can beat me, in battle, anywhere or anyhow."
Soumaoro was furious that Sunjata would dare to challenge his authority. At this moment they both jumped up.
"This means war"
"So be it, we shall meet in battle and I will be ready for you."
said Sunjata confidently.
As all chiefs know a decision made over the game of Awale is final and must be carried out no matter what the consequences.
That night Soumaoro consulted with his magic and to his horror realised his mistake; Sunjata had taken note of all Soumaoro's strengths and weaknesses during their game of Awale, while Soumaoro had only postured and shown his anger. Sunjata had the advantage and Soumaoro could not go back on a decision made while playing Awale.
On the day of the battle Sunjata's army made a quick and devastating victory, chasing Soumaoro all the way to the Nianan caves of Koulikoro.
After Soumaoro entered the caves he was never seen again, he had lost his power and now Sunjata was king of all Mandingo. Sunjata created a fair and just constitution becoming the first ruler of the Great Malian Empire.
The men cheered, the women danced and the people were happy again.
And that is the story of how 2 kings decided the future of an empire over a game of Awale.
All you need to play Awale are 2 players and 12 holes in the ground, representing fields, which are then divided by a line representing a river.
Finally 4 stones; representing seeds, must be placed in each field and the game is ready to begin.
Each player takes a turn to pickup one field of seeds on their side of the river and deposits one seed in each field around the board in a clockwise direction.
If the player's last seed lands in a field with seeds in it, the player continues, picking these seeds up and dropping them into each field until finally the player's last seed lands in an empty field or a field of three.
Both players then look to see if there are any fields with 4 seeds on their side of the river which they take off the field off play as seeds won.
The player with the most seeds at the end of the game is the winner.
Malian culture in the play of Awale shows us how a game of mathematical strategy can aid players in reaching a meditative state and help to form resolutions to complex social and logistical issues of the highest importance. It is, if you like, a path to thinking "outside the box", a state of vision that often eludes powerful people responsible for millions of lives, but in ancient Malian culture had been a skill honed for centuries.