Morabaraba is a mill game from south-eastern Africa. The gameplay of the standardized version is very similar to Twelve Men’s Morris (with a few minor differences), but the version played in Lesotho has a unique board.

Morabaraba is played as a competitive sport in South Africa, administered by Mind Sports South Africa. It is widely played throughout the country; a poll conducted by The Sowetan in 1996 indicated that 40% of South Africans played the game.a

A morabaraba board with bottlecaps being used as pieces. One player is using them right-side-up and the other player is using them upside-down.
A game of Morabaraba being played.
Shutterstock.com/ivanfolio)

History

Surprisingly, unlike most board games we know who was responsible for transmitting the game from Europe:b[134]c[79] it was introduced to Lesotho—then called Basutoland—some time between 1832 and 1855 by Eugène Casalis, a French protestant missionary who acted as Foreign Advisor to King Moshoeshoe I for nearly two decades.Casalis is also sometimes also referred to as Cazalis in English sources. Upon his return to France he wrote about his experiences in Les Bassoutos: Vingt-Trois Années de Séjour et D’Observations au Sud de L’Afrique (Paris, 1859) (later published in English as The Basutos: or Twenty-Three Years in South Africa (London: Nisbet, 1861)), but the book contains no mention of any board games. There is now a roundabout in his home town, Orthez, named after him. The introduction of the game had unintended consequences for the mission: young men preferred to play the game rather than attend mass.c[79] Obsession with the game also led herders to neglect their flocks,c[79] so it became known by the epithet sethetsabadisana ‘deceiver of the herd-boys’:‌d[41] “for when you play it, old or young, you forget your herds, and they wander into the corn…”‌e[56]

The game was also popular amongst Basotho men who travelled to South Africa to work in its mines. References to Morabaraba can be found in difela/lifela (singular sefela), song–poems that were sung by these migrant workers.f[17, 175, 229]g[98–101]

In Lesotho’s past the game was restricted to being played by men, to the point that women were not permitted in the vicinity of the gaming area.h[95] Thankfully, times are changing, and as of 2021, the top-ranked player in Mind Sports South Africa’s league is a woman, named Saudah Bhaimia, who has won the last three national championships.i

Casalis was stationed at Moshoeshoe’s stronghold Thaba-Bosiu, which was positioned atop a sandstone plateau.
Shutterstock.com/Damian Ryszawy)

Terminology

The name moraba-raba comes from the Sesotho language, and is related to the verb ho raba raba ‘to roam in small circles’,j[304] so could refer to the action of a mill.‌ In Nguni languages (isiZulu, isiXhosa), it is known as (Um)labalaba, with similar meaning,‌k[247–50] and in Ronga, spoken in Mozambique, it is called Muravarava.

Two men dressed in warm blankets, gumboots, and balaclava, carrying staffs
Two Lesotho herdsmen carrying staffs. What appear to be caps are rolled-up balaclava: most of Lesotho is above 1 800 m, so it is cooler than many neighbouring countries.
Shutterstock.com/Vladimira Pufflerova)

There are other names which are probably derived from the European name of ‘mill’:‌b[134] an alternate Sesotho name is mmila/’mila, ‘road’.‌l[283] In Botswana, the game is called mhele (‘reedbuck’, a type of antelope‌m[350]), and the name morabaraba refers solely to a mancala game.Because of the large overlap of names, in written descriptions Morabaraba is often confused with or included in lists of other mancala games, such as mefuvha (from Limpopo) or tsoro (from Mozambique/Zimbabwe) (see, for example, [a]).

A distinctive feature of this game is its bovine theme: in each language, the pieces are called ‘cows’. In Sesotho this is dikgomo/likhomo (singular kgomo/khomo);‌n[588] in isiZulu it is izinkomo (singular inkomo). In isiZulu a mill is a isibhamu (‘gun’), which allows you to “shoot” an opponent’s cow, while in Sesotho the mill is called a molamu (a staff carried by shepherds), and you can eat (ja) a cow.d[36]

Play

The following description is based on Mind Sports South Africa’s “Generally Accepted Rules”. As with all traditional board games, local rules can vary.

Each player has 12 pieces. Commonly, plastic or metal bottle capsThe use of bottle caps is so common that even commercial sets use bottle caps, and they show up in computerized versions as a skeuomorphic feature. are used in two contrasting colours.

Standard Morabaraba is played on the large mill board with diagonals.

During the placement phase, players must place a single piece on any vacant point of the board. Once all their pieces are placed, players can move a single piece to another vacant point, along one of the lines.

If a player places or moves a piece to form a new mill, they remove one of the opponent’s pieces. The removed piece may not be from a mill unless there are no other pieces that can be removed.

During the placement phase it is possible to form two mills at once. In Morabaraba this only allows a player to remove one piece.

When a player is reduced to three pieces, their pieces can ‘fly’ and move to any vacant point on the board, ignoring the lines.

A player loses the game when they are reduced to fewer than three pieces, or if they are unable to make a valid move on their turn.

Two school chidren stand next to a table where a game of muravarava is being played, looking at the board intensely, while an umpire watches.
A game of Muravarava being played in Mozambique, at Chinhamapere Secondary School.
2018 Shutterstock.com/ivanfolio)

In tournament play, Mind Sports adopted an additional rule: During the movement phase, a piece that is moved from one mill to form another mill may not move back to form a mill again at the original point on the next turn. Instead, a different move must be taken before doing so. This rule prevents a player from moving backwards and forwards between two mills quickly. This rule seems to me to be unlikely to be used in casual play.

Theory

With perfect play, the first player can force a win in 49 moves.o

Variants

Sotho version

The Sotho version of the game is played on a board with a central cross.

The Sotho version of the game is played on a special board or flat stone (letlapa)d[35] where the centre square is also crossed, and the inner diagonals are missing, giving 25 points that can be played on.‌pb[133] This means that there is no possibility of a deadlock after the placement phase.

Some rulesetsq state that a piece on the central point can only be the middle piece of a mill. Other lines of three formed with the central point do not count as mills.

Note that it is not possible to form a diagonal mill on this board.

A well-used morabaraba board with two different types of bottle caps for pieces.
A Sotho-style morabaraba board in Kliptown, Soweto (more examples of this board can be seen on Instagram: 1, 2, 3, 4).
2012 Nagarjun Kandukuru 🅭 🅯 🄏 ⊜)

Alternate board

An alternate Morabaraba board.

Another board pattern is also used to play Morabaraba, with a diagonally crossed central square. I do not know if the rules vary in any way.

Two sets of men playing on two different morabaraba boards.
Men playing on a different Morabaraba board. More examples of this board can be found on Instagram: 1, 2.
2017 mk11photography, with permission)

References

  1. (). ‘’. City of Johannesburg.

  2. (). ‘A Note on “Bantu Games”’. Journal of the National Institute for Personnel Research vol. 6 (3): pages 132–134.

  3. (). From Béarn to Southern Africa, or the Amazing Destiny of Eugène Casalis. Newcastle upon Tyne, England, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN: 9781443856652.

  4. (). ‘’. Cape Town, South Africa: University of Cape Town.

  5. (). The World and the Cattle. South Africa: Penguin. ISBN: 9780143185574.

  6. (). ‘’. Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa.

  7. (). . Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-266-11573-9.

  8. (). ‘’. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

  9. (). ‘’. Esports, and other games.Mind Sports South Africa.

  10. and (). . Moria, Limpopo, South Africa: Khatiso.

  11. (). ‘’. Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa.

  12. (). ‘’. In Proceedings of the International Conference on New Ideas in Mathematics Education, edited by Alan Rogerson: pages 283–287. Palm Cove, Cairns, Australia: Mathematics Education into the 21st Century Project.

  13. (). ‘’. South African Journal of African Languages vol. 10 (4): pages 345–353.

  14. (). ‘’. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences vol. 5 (27): pages 585–591.

  15. and (). ‘’. IEEE Transactions on Computational Intelligence and AI in Games vol. 8 (3).

  16. (). . Pretoria, South Africa: Sport and Recreation South Africa.

  17. (). ‘’. BLAC Foundation.

Audio Credits

All audio is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0. Pronunciations are by: