When you visit Zanzibar, you will often see locals playing a board game comprising a carved wooden board and polished seeds, stones or shells. Bao, which simply means ‘wood’, is a wonderful strategy board game from East Africa, especially Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. It is generally believed to be the most complicated of the ‘Mancala’ family games that are played in many parts of Africa.

bao

A hugely popular game, children learn Bao as soon as they can count, sometimes improvising by making holes in the ground and using shells as counters.  It truly is one of Zanzibar’s best loved pastimes and Bao sets, often intricately carved, make excellent souvenirs.

It is said that Bao was the favorite pastime of Julius Kambarage Nyerere (1922-1999), the first President of Tanzania, and that he learnt the strategies to strive for independence from the colonial British by playing the game. On April 7, 1972, Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume (1905-1972), the first President of Zanzibar, was assassinated by four gunmen as he played Bao at the headquarters of the Afro-Shirazi party.

On a Bao board each player has two rows of 8 holes, into which counters (seeds) are placed. Moves are made by taking one or more seeds and ‘sowing’ them along the row of holes. Depending on where the last seed is placed, you can take the seeds from that hole and continue the sowing, possibly capturing seeds from your opponent in the process. The aim of the game is to empty your opponent’s front row of seeds or make it impossible for him to move.

More detailed Bao rules can be found here.

Click here for an online game where you can play the computer or a friend.