Omweso, sometimes shortened to Mweso or spelled Mweisho, is the national mancala game of Uganda. The name “Omweso” is derived from the Swahili word michezo, which means “game”.
The game was supposedly introduced by the Bachwezi people of the ancient Bunyoro-kitara empire of Uganda in the 16th century. The okwesa ritual, which included a game of Omweso, was part of the crowning ceremony on the sacred Buddo hill. This ritual was probably as old as the kingdom itself founded by Kintu Kato more than 600 years ago.
Omweso was the favorite pastime of King Mutesa I (reign 1856-1884), the 30st king of the Buganda, who played it with his wives, sisters and important ministers in the royal palace called twekobe. As the game was much played by members of the state administration too, it could promote a professional career.
Mutesa I. ruled the country when in 1862 the English researcher John Hanning Speke became the first European to reach this remote part of Africa. His Omweso board was displayed in the UNESCO World Heritage site Kasubi Tombs until it was destroyed by fire in 2010.
The best player of the 19th century was Mukasa who was Katikkiro (prime minister) during the reign of Mutesa I and Mwanga II. The Omweso rules were first described in Europe by R. S. Shackell in 1934.
People of the lower classes rarely played Omweso and women were discouraged by being told that they would be not developping breasts if they would play the game. It was also forbidden to play the game in the night.
After Uganda was occupied by the British aggressors in 1894, Omweso lost much of its former importance. Many men were brought to cotton plantations which resembled forced labor camps.
Omweso was revived by the Bataka Movement which was started in 1947 by James Miti and Sezario Mulumba, then by the return of Sir Edward Mutesa II from his British exile in 1955. The renewed appreciation of African values and indigenous cultural achievements made the game once again very popular in Uganda.
In the early 2000s, the most important official tournaments were the Baganda Clan Tournament (with more than 250 players), the Kampala District Championship, the Inter-District Tournament and the All Uganda Championship. There were also tournaments at the Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO) in London (2000) and Cambridge (2001-2003), England.
At this time the strongest players were Hudson Kyagaba, Abdu and Umaru Semakula, Sofasi Ddamba, B. Kityo Mukasa, Dirisa Ssemogerere and Dirisa Nsubuga. The game was so popular that the Ugandan State TV showed almost every day commented games from important matches.
Many Omweso players were organized in the International Omweso Society (IOS), which had members in Uganda, the UK, the Channel Islands and the Czech Republic. The society, which was formed by Brian Wernham in 1999, appears to be defunct. Its homepage (www.omweso.org) was last updated on October 22, 2004 and removed in early 2010.
The e-mail address of Brian Wernham, its president, is bouncing since August 17, 2004. The last Omweso tournament in Europe was held in 2003 at the MSO Cambridge.
The Omweso Society reported in 2004 that there were nine Omweso clubs in Kampala (Uganda), however, the game is on the decline in Africa too. In 2007, five sportsmen were nominated for the 2006 Uganda Sports Press Association (USPA) Sports Personality of the Year award. According to the Monitor (Kampala) “[Omweso] was quashed off the list due to the inactiveness all year round”.
In 2003, Jochen Wertenauer who lives in Erdmannshausen near Stuttgart wrote a computer program for Omweso. However, the rules he implemented are not correct.
Omweso requires a board of 32 pits, arranged with eight pits lengthwise towards the players, and four pits deep. Each player’s territory is the 16 pits on their side of the board. In addition, 64 undifferentiated seeds known as empiki are needed.
Before the game, four seeds are placed in each of the eight pits closest to a player, to ensure that both players have exactly 32 seeds. The first player is chosen by lot. This player arranges all seeds on his side of the board according to preference. Then, the second player also arranges his seeds.
According to Sandeman “players are usually restricted to a maximum of ten seeds in any one pit”. However, expert players doesn’t appear to use this rule, and no other author has ever mentioned any restrictions on the number of seeds.
The first player then makes the first sowing move.
Initial Set up
Play is turnwise and each move may involve several laps. A player moves by selecting a pit with at least two seeds, and sowing them one by one around their side of the board in a counter-clockwise direction from the starting pit. The player may only sow from one of the sixteen pits in his territory, and the sowing proceeds around this territory, not directly involving the opponent’s side.
If the last sowed seed lands in a previously occupied pit, all seeds in that pit, including the one just placed, are immediately sown, before the opponent’s turn. This relay-sowing continues until the last one ends in an empty pit.
Players are permitted to perform special sowings apart from the normal ones before any seeds have been captured. These special moves do not capture and end after a single lap. Different modes have been described:
- According to Michael Sandeman, Paul Smith and R. S. Shackell, the contents of a pit containing exactly three seeds can be sown in a special way up until the point where the first capture is made. Two seeds are dropped into the adjacent pit and one into the pit beyond.
- Michael Sandeman gave a game, which was played during the 2000 Baganda Clan Championship, so this seems to be the modern rule used in major tournaments now.
- According to Michael B. Nsimbi, each player drops one or two seeds in a special pattern depending on the number of seeds in the emptied pit.
- He mentioned that there are more rules for pits with less than 16 seeds, which permit the player to move some seeds from pits in the back row straight to the pits in the front row, but didn’t elaborate how this is done, nor did he give any particular patterns.
- According to Larry Russ, players may drop any number of seeds (including zero) in occupied holes, but have to put at least one seed into empty pits in their path.
- Players may even begin with a pit containing just a single seed. This kind of move must end before it makes a complete circuit around the board. This rule appears to be a misunderstanding because a draw could easily be achieved: just place all seeds into one hole and move its contents each turn into the next hole. The opponent will never be able to capture anything.
If the last seed sown lands in one of the player’s eight inner pits, which is occupied, and furthermore both the opponent’s pits in this same column are occupied, then all seeds from these two pits are captured and sown starting from the pit where this capturing lap began.
Neither player is permitted to capture any seeds on their first move of the game. If they make a move which would normally capture some seeds, instead they just carry on sowing as if it was a non-capturing move.
Reverse holes. White for South, Black for North
Instead of sowing in a counterclockwise direction, a player may sow clockwise from any of their four leftmost pits if this results in a direct capture. During a long continued move, a player may play both forward sowing and reverse capturing laps, and is never compulsed to prefer one over the other as long as the conditions are met.
There are three regular winning conditions:
- Okwa bulijo: the normal way to win the game is to be the last player left with a legal move. The normal victory is worth one point.
- Okutema: this victory is achieved by Emitwe-Ebiri (“cutting-off the head”). If a player captures the contents of all four endpits of his opponent, he wins by two points.
- Akawumbi: a special case of Emitwe-Ebiri, which occurs when a player captures seeds from each of an opponent’s pits. The last seeds must be from an endpit. This victory is worth 12 points (in some tournaments just six points).
There are two more winning conditions, which can be agreed by both sides before the start of the game. They are used in some tournaments:
- Akakyala: a player wins the game by capturing in two different moves, before the opponent has captured his first seed. To be a valid one this kind of victory is bound to several restrictions:
- The last capture must be made counterclockwise in the first lap and the winner must have offered his opponent some seeds that he failed to capture. Akakyala was first used shortly before 1970. It is worth two points.
- Okukoneeza: a player wins the game when he has three seeds in a pit, two seeds in the following pit and one seed in the next pit but one, before the opponent has captured his first seed. Okukoneeza was invented after 1970 and was only reported by Wernham.
- He failed to mention its point value or any restrictions that must be accompanied with Okukoneeza (without them it would be easy to achieve). Obviously one must have offered the opponent some seeds to capture, but there might be more conditions associated with this kind of victory.
A player has to gain 12 points to win a match.
It is possible for a move to go on forever. In tournament play, a player is allowed up to three minutes to finish his move – if this cannot be done, the game is annulled.
Never-ending Omweso moves have been analyzed by mathematicians. The Mayer Test developed in 2001 by Steven Meyer, Professor of Physics at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (Wisconsin, USA), is used to determine whether a position can lead to a never-ending sowing.
Modes of Play
There are three modes of playing Omweso:
- Ekyokubala: Players are permitted to spend some tome on evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of different moves open to him. Ekyokyubala means “counting”.
- Ekisibé: At the start of the game the players exchange a seed, which symbolizes a contract that forbids each player to undo a move.
- Ekyobutabal: In this kind of play, which is most popular in tournaments and larger cities, only three seconds of thought is allowed per turn. The referee counts omu, ebiri, and if the turn is not started the other player may “steal” it. However, if the opponent doesn’t want to move twice, the first player is obliged to move – he may not pass – or forfeits the game.
South to move!
South to move!
North to move! What happens? – Note: South has no seeds that could be captured.
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