Ayo is a traditional board game of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. It demands intellectual ability and mathematical skill. The Yoruba call it “ayoayo,” which means “real ayo.”
A game of ayo requires a board with twelve holes for two players—six apiece—and 48 game pieces—four in each hole. Ayo boards are mostly made from wood, but can also be fashioned from clay, rock, or simply by making circular holes in the ground. Game pieces can be seeds, nuts, cowrie shells, or pebbles.
Ayo boards have artistic details carved into them. There is the image of a man and two women holding hands, which indicates that the game unites people. There is the image of a large head, staring skywards, on the short side of the board. Also, the figures and image have scarification marks.
In many small communities, only people of the same age group and gender play ayo. Based on beliefs of male superiority, men play with men, women play with women, and children play with one another. In many communities, children are encouraged to play the game as it improves their analytical skill. The act of playing the game is called “ayo tita.”
To win a game of ayo, a player must capture as many of the opponent’s seeds as possible. Each player picks up the game pieces on their side of the board and runs them in a counter-clockwise motion. When a seed falls in a hole with three or fewer game pieces on the opponent’s side, the player takes hold of those game pieces. Both players do this until one player, who becomes the winner, has captured most of the game pieces.
In Yoruba culture, the Ayo game has spiritual significance. It is believed that Ayo should not be played at night because spirit beings might want to partake and take the living beings with them after the game. Also, when a person dies, people who knew him or her would not use a board they knew the person liked so as not to tempt the dead to join in the game.
The Ayo game is part of the Mancala, which is gotten from the Arabic word Naqala, and which means “To move something around.” Mancala is a general name for board games.
Ayo shares similarities with other board games in different cultures, like the Endodoi game played by the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania and the Oware game in the Americas.
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has a short story on Lolwe.