The Game of Stones

While living in Indonesia, I often wandered outside the gates of our compound into the Kampung or villages that thrived beyond my fence. I loved watching the children, frightfully poor but impeccably clean and happy. If I were traveling across the island or visiting other areas, I  took time out to photograph the local kids. Inevitably they would be gathered around a lively game of Congklak. If no board were available, they would dig small holes in the ground and collect pebbles to use as playing pieces.

Congklak is an ancient game with origins in either Africa or the Arab world, there seems to be some dispute. It may be the oldest board game in the world with the first evidence uncovered by a National Geographic excavation in Jordan dating back to 7,000 to 5,000 BC. Though I hadn’t encountered it before, I have since seen it advertised as Mancala, the name derived from the Arabic work meaning “to move.” The playing surface is made up of a series of holes; the number varying from culture to culture. Some boards have 5, 6, or 7 holes, but the majority  I saw had 7 holes plus the “home hole” on each end. Cowrie shells were used in villages near the coast, stones or pebbles in the city, seeds in the country. I purchased my board from a village near Yogyakarta in Central Java. It is simple, made of a light, porous wood accompanied by a bag of shells.

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Museums displayed  elegantly carved and painted Congklak boards with dragons on each end resembling double-ended dug out canoes. It was thought that Arab traders brought the game and it adapted with local traditions. When I first encountered a group of kids playing, the action was so fast I couldn’t keep up with the play and had no idea what the rules were. I spoke a proficient version of street slang and soon had my own coach as the kids crowded around to watch me learn. It proved trickier than I thought. The complete rules are here, you can make up your own variations as I soon found out with the kids. As I became more proficient,  I would saunter up to a game and in my best Bahasa Indonesian challenge the winner to a round. Once the surprise wore off, I was admitted to the game. If they were shocked  to see me in their village and speaking their language, they were still bright enough to spot a chance to win a few coins.

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