Take a Bao: Tanzania’s Most Popular Board Game

Written by Thomson Safaris
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Detail of Bao board
Yintan [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When someone’s considered a master strategist, capable of seeing ten steps ahead and planning accordingly now, we often refer to him or her as a “chess master,” regardless of whether or not s/he’s interested in the actual game of chess.

In Tanzania, such a cunning strategist would be called a bao bingwa (Swahili for “master”) or even a bao fundi (“artist”), after the traditional East African board game, bao.

Anyone who has played any of the many variations of mancala will find the bao board game familiar…at least at first. Boards feature four rows with eight shimo, or pits, each; two players (seated on opposite sides of the board) each control the two rows nearest him or her. Players have 32 kete (the word for “shells,” though usually these markers are made from seeds), which s/he distributes on the board according to the rules of the game variation being played.

Players pick up the contents of a shimo and sow the kete one by one into the adjoining pits, picking up the contents of the final shimo in a “relay sow” when appropriate. The game ends when one player either has no kete in any of the inner-row mashimo (plural of shimo), or when no legal moves remain to him or her (in either instance, that player has just lost).

Bao game at Nyumba Camp

Playing a round of Bao at the Nyumba camp
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Jennifer Terry

But don’t be fooled into thinking the game is simple: specialized shimo, known as the nyumba (Swahili for “home”), have special rules applied to them; different results from a sow trigger different stages in the game; and—much as in chess—a single move can have significant repercussions for many turns to come.

In Tanzania, there are two widely-known variations of bao, bao la Kiswahili (bao of the Swahili people) and bao la kujifunza (beginner’s bao). The rules vary slightly (unsurprisingly, bao la kujifunza is slightly less complicated), but both are very popular. In fact, both mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar have bao societies, many of them decades old.

So next time you have the chance to sit down with a bao bingwa, ask him or her to teach you the basics of bao. Like so many of the best games, you’ll learn the rules in just a few minutes…but it may take you a lifetime to become a master!