I watched a few games and then felt confident enough to play against Kojo. I tried to think things through, but was too inexperienced to remember all the catching techniques and lost heavily. I decide that I needed to head off and play with myself, er, play on my own, so I paid the man, shook his hand enthusiastically and retreated to my room.
I found it very difficult to learn the strategies of the game on my own. For one reason, I knew what the other guy was doing, so I would either pre-empt the move or the game was so bland that no-one took pieces. The kids came back from collecting mangoes and saw that I had bought Oware. Their eyes lit up and Ada asked me for a game. We took it out onto the steps and started to play. Ada beat me easily. Next game was closer, I was beginning to get the feel for it. The third was a dead heat. We played about twenty games that night on the stone steps of the guest house, and it got so late I had to run down to the staff canteen.
From then on, every night I came back from work, Ada and Kwaru would be waiting on the steps for me and they would rush up and say “Owale, Owale”. I’d push them off and retreat into my room for a shower and a lie down, then come out and play for an hour or more before supper time. I got better, Ada beat me less often. Kwaru was no-where near as good, but he was only about six. He suffered from taking too many hasty decisions, too busy trying to attack and not guarding his own defence. Ada, thirteen, was much more thoughtful, but was a bit ashamed when he tricked me into a vulnerable situation. As he picked up all the beans in the deadly cup and started to place them, he would say in his breaking voice “uh oh.” I think he got his natural respect for the underdog from his father. Kojo always beat me at this game, but half suspected that he wasn’t meant too, and would be incredibly embarrassed when he took all my pieces.
The game helped me become part of the family there. Many people would visit Kojo and sit with him on the veranda. Despite the fact that the guesthouse was in the middle of the university campus, and the road was a dead end, people were always coming through. There were a few university administrators or ground staff on bikes, plenty of school kids who cut through the bottom and went into the fields beyond. Workmen came through there, women carrying washing would look up and shyly smile at me on the veranda. And so many would come and sit with Kojo. When I was there, Ada and Kwaru would tell me to go and get the board and we’d play a few games. Other people would sit and watch us, and laugh at my mistakes or praise a good play. They would occasionally play themselves, but often I would not be their opponents. I was still not good enough to compete against Africans who had been brought up on Oware since they started eating solids.
One man in particular I was very wary of. He was very old, at least 75 and possible older, covered in head to toe in the traditional costume. His long bony fingers would emerge out of large side pockets in his gown, to stifle a yawn, scratch a nose or pick at his teeth, but he did little else with them. He would simply come and sit, and listen to the other conversations come on. But when Oware was present, he would become extremely animated, taking both sides on at once and castigating bad moves.
When he played, I kept well clear. He was so good at building up a false sense of security in his opponent, and then demolish him in two or three moves. I saw one game with Ada where he managed to capture every single piece except the two left on the board at the end. I realised through watching him that to be a winner at Oware, you had to master all three games, you made no early blunders, you built up a strategy to pounce at the right moment in the middle and you made sure you fought for every last piece at the endgame. His tenacity during this endgame was amazing, and you felt his opponent was being played with as a cat plays with a mouse. He would make sure his opponent only had one piece to move through his cups, and build up a number of beans in the second from last, with one bean at the end. When the opponent runs out of beans in his cups, the other has to pass him some in the next move, but each time, this old guy would play from the back, meaning that his opponent had to move that one piece two spaces before he was captured again. He was ruthless and it was demoralizing to watch the other player crumble beneath him.
When he finished the game, he would smile and take his leave of us without another word.