Hidden Object Highlight: Oware

This blog post was written by Kelsey Petersen, the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for fall 2018. Kelsey is currently a second year M.A. candidate at Tufts University, studying Art History and Museum Studies. Her research is focused on the display of African art in museums, the politics of representation, and cross-cultural artistic exchange. She appreciates the power of material culture to tell stories and connect others, and she hopes to continue with collections management after graduating.

When I started the Elvira Growdon Internship for Collections and Archives Management at Boston Children’s Museum, I learned that the Museum has a collection of over 50,000 objects, encompassing not just children’s toys and dolls, but also natural history specimens, geological samples, dinosaur fossils, global jewelry, indigenous baskets, and even a two-story Japanese home from Kyoto. Aside from Antarctica, every continent of the world is represented in the collection, and each object clearly has a story to tell.

While I could easily spend all day uncovering a single object’s cultural biography, I was especially interested in the cultural materials from Africa, which had not yet been systematically inventoried in the Museum’s collection database. As an art historian with a focus in the visual culture of the continent, I was eager to go through the fifty drawers of materials to gain a better sense of the collection, a large part of which was donated to the Museum in the mid-1930s.

With each passing day, the collection of objects from Africa continues to surprise me with its breadth of hidden materials. When I started my inventory project in September, I was expecting to find mostly wooden figurines, woven straw baskets, and an assortment of instruments. Instead I have discovered brightly colored East African kangas (large, patterned textiles worn and used in East Africa, often with a proverb in Kiswahili, one of the languages of the region), glass beaded jewelry, long metal spears (“Handle carefully; poisoned tips,” the catalogue card states), a delicate hair pin made of animal bone, and several gently curving wooden headrests.

One of my favorite objects I’ve come across so far is an oware, a wooden game board from the Ashanti region in Ghana, West Africa. With its long rectangular shape and evenly spaced depressions – with a few round seeds dispersed in each – the oware instantly reminded me of the mancala game set I had so often played as a child with my brother. After doing a little additional research, I learned that an oware is a type of mancala, one of many mancala game types played around the world. ‘Mancala’ comes from the Arabic word ‘naqala,’ meaning “to move,” and is a type of board game in which players ‘count-and-capture’ the greatest number of seeds possible, usually forty-eight in total. [One Africa, Many Countries- Ayo,” http://www.beyondthechalkboard.org/activity/one-africa-many-countries-ayo/%5D

Similar to other mancalas, the oware is comprised of two parts: a flat, rectangular base, and an oblong game board on top, with fourteen small cups and two raised bars in between the two rows of cups. Often intended for two players (although there can sometimes be teams), the purpose of the game is to strategically capture the opposing player’s seeds, keeping them contained in the large cup at either side of the mancala during the course of the game. The winner of oware is the player who collects the most seeds.

Mancala games are global, possibly originating in Africa or Asia over 3,000 years ago. There are hundreds of variation of the game, including layli goobalay in Somalia, ouri in Cape Verde, omweso in Uganda, and congkak across South Asia.  Oware, however, originated in West Africa, and is still played throughout Ghana, Senegal, and Gabon. ‘Oware’ comes from the Ashanti word ‘wari,’ meaning “he/she marries,” a translation that stems from the Ashanti legend that claims a man and woman decided to get married because they did not want to finish their endless mancala game. [History, Rules, and Play: The National Game of Ghana,” in Oware History and Rules (Mallee Blue Media), https://www.scribd.com/document/28894645/Oware-History-Rules%5D

The oware pictured here first came to Boston Children’s Museum in 1967 to be displayed in the Hall of Toys exhibit, when a staff member brought back a few examples of children’s toys from her vacation in Kenya. Although most of the seeds are now missing after years of use in public programs, researching this object makes me want to add a few more and challenge Rachel Farkas, Curator of Collections, to an oware match!

Interested in learning more about global mancalas? Check out Boston Children’s Museum’s ‘Beyond the Chalkboard,’ an accessible online resource that provides hundreds of curriculum-inspired activities for afterschool programs. One activity – “One Africa, Many Countries” – teaches participants the history of mancala, and how to play ayo, the Nigerian version of the game.

I encourage you to visit http://www.beyondthechalkboard.org/activity/one-africa-many-countries-ayo/ for this activity, and plenty more!

To learn more about the Museum’s General Cultural Collection, please visit http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about/collections/general-cultural-collection, and be sure to stop by the Museum’s window displays, located across the main hallway of each floor.

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