Ayo Olopon: One of the Oldest

If you want to learn more about Nigerian cultures better don’t stay all the time in cosmopolitan cities like Lagos and Abuja but go to other places because cultures are more preserved there.

I learned about a Yoruba game Ayo when I visited Ibadan city with my marketing team. We came to the Amusement Park in the city where the trade fair was about to be held…The tent was not set up yet by organizers, so we had some time to chill.

Henry and one of the fair workers started to play this Yoruba game. I took my camera and began to shoot. I asked my colleague ‘What is the name of this game?” He said ‘Ayo‘. I at once remembered our colleague from the office because his name was also Ayo which means ‘joy’ in Yoruba language. But in this context it means more like ‘entertainment.’

My colleague Henry told me that ‘Ayo is played by two individuals who attempt to get more seeds. The game is made up of 12 holes with 6 on each side of the board and every hole contains 4 seeds making it a total of 48 seeds. A player is declared the winner if he is able to garner more than his opponent. The game is played in an anticlockwise format while each player is allowed to play for 30 secs.’ Anyway, I didn’t understand how to play it ….

Ayo Olopon is probably one of the oldest local games in Nigeria, and has been in existence amongst the Yoruba people since time immemorial. Ayo is also known among other Nigerian tribes and even countries. It is called Ayo Olopon in Yoruba, Oware in Twi, Nchorokoto/Nchọ/Ókwè in Igbo, Ise in Edo, Awele in Ivory Coast, Wari in Mali, Ouri/Ouril/ Uril in Cape Verde, Warri in Caribbean etc.

Ayo is usually played during the day, after work is finished. It is not just a game for the older crowd as it was known from long ago; in fact, many young children learn how to play Ayo in order to sharpen their math skills. 

Ayo is generally played by people of the same age group and gender, meaning men play with men, women play with other women, and children play amongst themselves. The mixing of these groups is very uncommon. As a tradition of African society and the belief of male superiority, males and especially elders commonly separate themselves from women and children in order to display their masculinity and authority.

Some resources state that Ayo is not just a recreational game, but that it also has spiritual significance: “It is played in a house of mourning to amuse the spirit of the dead before it is buried. It is very unlucky to play the game at night as the spirits will want to join in and may carry off the living at the end of the game. Each village would have two types of boards, one with a flat top and one with a curved top, a bit like a banana. When a man died the villagers would play on the board that was not his favorite, so that his spirit would not want to join in” (Mancala Games 2004).

As one of the most popular traditional games in Nigeria, Ayo is getting popular worldwide through cultural heritage of former slaves from African continent and even a modern app for phones nowadays.

Can you play Ayo Olopon?