THINGS THAT MATTER: Warri – intangible culture, our culture

Culture – Definition: The characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. ... The word “culture” derives from a French term, which in turn derives from the Latin “colere,” to tend to the earth and grow, or cultivate and nurture.

Creole culture – Definition: The intermixing of European and chiefly African people and their food, music, traditions and practices of the various ethnicities and nationalities.

There’s been a great deal in the press over the last few days about the nature of our tourism product, about our culture, about the need for us all to pull together to overcome our horrendous economic decline of the last decade, about possible solutions, and about new year’s resolutions. I liked the New Year’s goals set by Dr. Louise Armstrong, which included most of my own continuing habits of swimming, visiting favourite sites in Barbados, exercising, eating home cooked meals and avoiding high fat, high salt fast foods, and sharing as much as we can. And a bouquet to Dr. Frances Chandler, former senator, for her column A New Attitude for 2019. We all need to produce, to promote, and to pull together – we could call it a 3 P programme.

Which brings me to the matter of culture. The popular definition of culture that is often used can be stated simply “The way people behave”. This is often an excuse for “Anything goes”. The populist view that is rampant in the media today is what some call simply “low culture”. Music other than dub and rap is decried; theatre is too high brow for most; fine art is also considered high brow, and given little or no support by the powers that be. But I want to focus on two aspects of our culture that are given little recognition but could give us global fame. One is the pit and pebble or board game Warri and the other is road tennis.

Warri is the traditional game of our ancestors, originally from West Africa, that has survived in the North of Barbados, and has been promoted by our Warri gurus, Lee Farnum-Badley and Addinton (Addy) Forde. It’s an ancient game, brilliant in conception and valuable in its practice, and is very much a part of our traditional pre-iphone and tablet culture. My renewed enthusiasm for it was stimulated by the visit of our son and his family over Christmas, when he took out the Warri board and taught our 14-year-old grandaughter to play. By their second session she had the intuitive secrets and was winning every game; she then thrashed me at it as well!

“Warri is one of several traditional board games that was once played with great enjoyment by people of all age groups in Barbados. In some Caribbean territories it is still possible to see two persons playing one or another version of the game, surrounded by a group of excited bystanders. Antigua particularly retains a strong Warri-playing culture. While it is indisputably riveting to play and watch, the tradition has lost ground generally because of the myriad other powerful distractions of the electronic age.” (Lee Farnum-Badley)

“It is a mancala game with several different names, including wari (or warri, or owari), wao, awele, awela, ayao, aji, awari and ouri. A mancala game is of the pit and pebble family, which originated in Ancient Egypt 3,500 years ago, making it one of the oldest games in the world.” (A-Z of Barbados Heritage, by Carrington et al).

Two players sit facing each other across a rectangular board with two rows of six depressions ranged along each side, called houses. Four pebbles or seeds (usually Guilandina tree seeds that we call “horse-nickers”) are loaded in each of the twelve houses. Warri is a game of capture, so the winner of a game is the player that captures the majority of seeds. As there are 48 seeds at play, the majority will be 25. Captured seeds are removed from the board.

The first player lifts all four seeds out of any one of the houses on his side, and deposits one seed in each of the houses that lie in sequence in a counter-clockwise direction. Repositioning seeds one by one faithfully in contiguous houses (without skipping any!) comprises a “move”. The opponent then makes his move.

In order to make a capture, a player uses his turn to choose a house which has accumulated the right number of seeds that when redistributed as described, allows the last seed in hand to come to fall in a “vulnerable” house on the opponent’s side - one that contains only one seed or two seeds. He will then remove them and add to his collection of captures. The player may only move from his side and may only capture as described on the opponent’s side. The costs and benefits of each move calls for constant situational analysis. There are no luck factors in Warri. No pulling of cards or tossing of dice. Like chess and drafts, it is a mind game – a game won entirely by players’ strategic positioning, hence it has a distinct “business orientation” character. It could have enormous value for developing business and management skills. As Lee Farnum-Badley says: “All games of strategy encourage evaluation for decision-making, and a decision is assuredly the most important survival skill. Hand-eye coordination, numeracy, forward planning, concentration, compliance with rules, turn-taking, decorum both in defeat or victory, and perseverance are all vital skill-sets that Warri would foster in young players.”

Warri survived in Barbados chiefly in the North, in and around Speightstown – perhaps because of the distance from the entertainment which arrived with cinemas in Bridgetown before the Second World War. And its strong survival in Antigua may be related to the fact that Antigua was one of the last Caribbean countries to receive large numbers of slaves from West Africa; By the time of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 Barbados was benefitting from the thirty years of amelioration, in which health care was improved and the slave population was reproducing much more successfully, hence our African cultural and linguistic influences were not as strong as in Antigua.

The A-Z of Barbados Heritage shows a picture of author Addinton Forde facing off with Antigua’s champion Trevor Simon in the 4th Mind Sports Olympiad in London in 2000. Addy, like Lee. is passionate about the game, and has taught it in numerous schools across Barbados. While in post at the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) he organised a Warri tournament, and he wrote a little book called Warri: The African Board Game as played in Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda. The time is ripe, in recognising the African contributions to our culture, to recognise this brilliant mind game which can do so much for our youth and our society, and to organise Warri tournaments once again. This can be done through the NCF, National Sports Council or the schools. And it would be a great opportunity for competing against our Antiguan cousins, where the game is played everywhere – just as our taxi drivers play dominoes while waiting, theirs play Warri! And so, to acquire your own Warri board, contact Lee Farnum-Badley at 432 1292 or by email at Lee is also willing to teach you to play!

My other plea is for us to patent the Barbadian invention of road tennis, before someone else does… let’s not lose our claim to this as we seem to have done with our famous, fertile, fabulously tasting Bajan black belly sheep.

Professor Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and President Emeritus of the Barbados National Trust. Website:

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