Morabaraba is an ancient and traditional African board game that has been played for thousands of years. Its origins predate recorded history in Africa. Today, Morabaraba is played in several countries — there is even a World Championship and South African players have been awarded national colours. It has been claimed that approximately 40% of South Africans know how to play Morabaraba — which would be over 20 million people!
Morabaraba is an accessible game that is easy to learn, although its strategic and tactical aspects run deep. While it may be played on specially-produced boards (or computer software) with special counters, it is simple enough that a board can easily be scratched on a stone or into sand, with coins or pebbles, or whatever comes to hand, used as the pieces.
It is far easier to learn than chess or draughts and the rules can be internalised in a mere few minutes.
The game is, however, not just a variation of noughts and crosses and has been described as subtle and thought-provoking.
On the surface this popular game seems to be a simple variant of the European game Nine Men’s Morris (also known as Muehle, Mill or Merelles). On closer scrutiny it seems more likely that Morabaraba evolved from Mancala games, known to date back to ancient Egypt. A Morabaraba board has actually been found carved into the Great Pyramid of Khufu. One can only speculate as to whether the board was perhaps placed there for the Pharaoh to use in his afterlife, or maybe for the relaxation purposes of the stonemasons. If the board is indeed the same age as the pyramid then the game could be dated back to 2560 BC!
Morabaraba, derived from the English Morris, is its Shangaan name and the one which has come to be actively used in promoting the game. In South Africa it is also commonly known by the name umlabalaba. The name is ultimately derived from Latin merellus meaning a gaming counter. In the traditional European game the counters are commonly referred to as “men”, but in the South African version the counters are referred to as “cows”, the game being particularly popular amongst youth who herd cattle.
Over the centuries Morabaraba has played an important role in African culture, and has been used to teach warriors an appreciation for tactical thinking, as well as evaluating the strategic skills of a chief’s advisers. The game is taken very seriously by its players and, according to legend, African chiefs would select the best Morabaraba players as their advisors and council members! With a recent revival of interest in traditional African culture, Morabaraba is being well received, and is thus being promulgated by many organisations, as well as the department of Sport and Recreation SA (SRSA) as part of the annual Indigenous Games tournaments supported by the department.
Mind Sports South Africa (MSSA) has taken on the mandate of putting Morabaraba on a sound sporting footing in South Africa and internationally. MSSA through IWF promulgated a standard set of rules, and organise tournaments at regional, national and international levels. They also designed, and registered, a Morabaraba board and counters that have to be used in all official local and international competitions: the board has annotations along the side and the MSSA logo appears on the board and counters.
MSSA has invested financially to the development of the game. This has resulted in regular, and very successful, tournaments being held across SA, helping to popularise the traditional game with a new generation of players. MSSA runs annual SA national and provincial championships, school national and provincial championships, and inter-school leagues.
In order to qualify for the national team trials, a player has to finish in the top 20% or top 3, whichever is greater, of a recognised provincial and/or national championship. The national team is then selected at the national team trials. Any registered player can enter the provincial and national championships.
MSSA is affiliated to the International Wargames Federation, which allowed for the establishment of an official Morabaraba World Championship.
Not only has a player (David Hlophe) received the President’s Award — Silver Class — in 2002, but there are now universities, that offer bursaries to players who excel in the game.
From having argued with the NSC in 1996 to have Morabaraba recognised as a sport, it is most rewarding to see the joy on the faces of players receiving provincial and national colours.
According to a report published in the Sowetan, it is estimated that as many as 40% of all South Africans have at some stage played Morabaraba on a recreational basis. However the competitive field is a lot smaller. The largest entry that the MSSA has ever had in any one year is 36,000.
Only official boards with notation must be used in all the MSSA-organised Morabaraba championships and international competitions.
There is no doubt that with the right support, Morabaraba can be one of the biggest games in the world.
Please note that the colours of the national flag may not be used on commercial products without permission from the State President.
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