Not too long ago, children across Nigeria enjoyed communal games with their age-mates.
The only people who don’t play games are the people who either do not know how to (for some reason best known to the Almighty) or have lost that inimitable childish capacity to enjoy the moment like there are no worries.
Because, as long as the game is on, there are no worries.
Around the world, games are an important part of the process of childhood and growing up in different traditions and cultures.
As soon as they’re strong enough to move their limbs, young children begin to engage in minor play, mostly with parents, guardians or small toys.
As they get older and develop the capacity to make informed decisions, the games become more complicated and the number of participants increases, from just the one child to include his peers and age mates.
Nowadays, the games that children play are different from what you would expect.
Walk into a room full of 10-year-olds, start a conversation about games and you’re more likely to get "FIFA 17" or "Call of Duty" than anything traditional.
It is very easy to forget that once upon a time, not too long ago, children across Nigeria enjoyed traditional and communal games with their friends.
Anyone above the age of 20 who lived in the South-West must remember the insanely popular game, "Suwe". Becoming an expert at Suwe was like an unofficial rite of passage for those young girls on these Lagos streets.
It was played by drawing a long rectangle, usually on a sandy floor, and splitting it into double sections.
The game was wildly popular among young girls, and players would hop around those small sections on one foot trying to make it around the drawn rectangle, with a small pebble or stone in the palm of their hand.
Once a player could make it around without falling, she could throw the pebble on a random section and claim it for herself.
The other players would then have to hop around that section unless the ‘owner’ allowed them to do otherwise.
Suwe is somewhat similar to the North American game "Hop-Scotch". Another similar variant was "Obi Chikolobi", an advanced level of Suwe that has its origins among the Igbo.
Most traditional games originated from activities that were part of daily life in across borders, and it is not unusual to see games that share certain similarities within different cultures.
An instance of this is "Boju-Boju", a variant of Hide-and-Seek. Boju-Boju was most suitable for groups of between 6–10 kids, but that didn’t stop small groups of three or four children from coming together to play.
The searcher or "Oloro" would kick things off with the song.
“Boju-Boju o. Oloro n bo. E para mo. Oju n ro mi o. Se ki n si?”
(Boju-Boju. The searcher is coming. Hide yourselves. My eyes are hurting. Should I open them?)
The other participants would hide while he sang. When the song was finished, the searching would begin.
It’s fair to say that Nigerian girls enjoyed the most traditional games growing up. Besides Suwe, they had “Ten-Ten”, a game slightly similar to "Rock, Paper, Scissors", played by pre-empting the opponent’s moves with both hands and feet.
They also had “Tinko-Tinko”, although, in all honesty, a substantial number of boys became experts at that game too. I was one of them.
While the girls enjoyed their bounty of options, it was an unspoken rule that some games were meant for the boys.
None of them was more important than table soccer.
Depending on who you ask, there are many different types of table soccer. Crown corks and bottle covers represented the players in one adaptation of the game.
There was another form where a cloth button was used as the ball and players used pen covers to move the ‘button’ on a pitch drawn out on a large sheet of paper.
Oh, the days!
As with most games, on the surface, the basic idea behind these activities, from “Ten-Ten” to Table Soccer, was nothing complex.
Nobody was sending their child to play “Boju-Boju” in preparation for a night out in the cold wilderness of Greece.
The games were mostly there for the children to find something to do in times of leisure and, quite simply, to relax.
But in the closely knit residential communities around the country where these games were played, they served multiple, important purposes.
From a very young age, traditional games helped to subtly instill the indigenous culture in the children who played them.
It is no mistake that most of the chants or songs from games like Suwe and “Ten-Ten” are uttered in local languages like Igbo and Yoruba.
I do not know of a place where children are taught the independent elements of their culture in a classroom. Instead, it is through subliminal means that a Yoruba or Hausa child learns his mother tongue, and then knows what is taboo or not among his people.
Games are an important part of this system. For example, in Yorubaland, "Oro" is a notable practice where Ifa initiates perform rituals at night.
Women are expressly forbidden from seeing the oro, and generally, it is not advisable to be caught outside at night while Oro is being performed, regardless of one’s gender.
One can then notice the symbolism in the ‘Boju-Boju’ game where the searcher sings “Oloro n bo”, meaning “The Ifa initiate is coming” as a warning to his peers to run to hide and for cover.
From a young age, Boju-Boju subtly teaches the children that getting caught outside during Oro is not the best of ideas.
These games also shaped and strengthened social organization among the children and in the communities where they were played.
In Africa's pre-colonial age, where most traditional games originated, age grades and similar variations were an integral structure in society. In some cultures like the Igbo, they have even made it to modern times, albeit with alterations.
Age grades helped to classify the society by generations, and all the necessary distinctions that come with them.
They also allowed each class to develop and take up increasingly important roles in society, as their age grade progressively became more senior than others.
A major key to the success of these age grades was that the members quite literally grew up together.
Important bonds and roles are established in a child’s early years, and games helped to enforce the age-based structure.
By fostering interaction between peers, they also helped the members develop important social skills that would be difficult to acquire otherwise.
It is little coincidence that in today’s more indoor-oriented world, more children are socially inept, instead, developing relationships with gadgets and screens and turning into very young couch potatoes.
The role of traditional games was never limited to Nigeria, or Africa even. In other cultures, these games were used for creative purposes, apt to the lifestyle and societal structure of the people.
In Sparta, they instilled a culture of physicality and fostered competition, traits that were important for the aggressive lifestyle of a warrior nation.
In Kenya, among the Maasai, games helped the children build a team ethic and taught them to cooperate, necessary for life as semi-nomadic hunters.
Except you live in one of the communities that have managed to stay preserved in all their pre-modern glory, you will have a very hard time finding a child who can even play Suwe, or who knows the unspoken rules that make 10–10 so fast and eye-catching.
Looking back at the transition between the Suwe days and now, it is clear to see why.
The very nature of traditional games meant that they had to be played among peers. The economic conditions that encouraged communal living until the death of the middle class in the mid-1990s supported this.
One of the few similarities among the different tribes and sub-tribes that make up Nigeria is the preference for living in small closely knit communities.
In older times, it was large compounds with a patriarch and many small families related to him.
Even in contemporary times, large homes supported by a strong wealthy family head have always been a standard among the upper class.
On the other hand, the mushroom communities that offered support and strength in numbers (as well as a general lack of space) were almost perfect for a growing middle class and a stable, if large, lower class.
These structures supported large, interactive family and community units, and in turn, provided an environment that encouraged children to fraternize and play.
That is, until a certain Nigerian president funneled his intelligence into IMF schemes and devalued the naira until she literally had no decency to call her own.
But this is not that story.
The games that have replaced Suwe and her many sisters are much better, at least in some sense of the word.
Starting with the launch of the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, video games gradually pushed the limits of gaming, by using the player’s imagination to immerse them in vastly realistic virtual worlds.
One moment, they were chasing mushrooms in "Super Mario Bros.", the next, everyone wanted to be a car-jacking criminal in "Grand Theft Auto IV".
Does this mean there is no chance that traditional games will return? Largely, yes. Unless there is a socio-cultural shift that takes us back by 20 years.
The games of nowadays suit the times almost perfectly, from arcades to consoles, mobile gaming and now virtual reality, they have developed to suit the reality of how young people move and live in the digital world.
The least we can do for our traditional games is for those who played them to remember. Remember the days when the collective chuckles of friends meant a game was afoot and old grudges could be settled.
If we remember these seemingly minor elements of our culture as each of them are phased out of daily life, we can use our deep knowledge of them to apply similar tools to achieve similar objectives in modern times.
Examples abound in the western world. Till date, groups like the Boy Scouts use modern adaptations of traditional western games to teach children teamwork, discipline, and organizational skills.
There is nothing to say we cannot build such structures to suit our reality. But only if we learn to appreciate our traditions and find a way to bring the best of our past to build the present.
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