Indigenous games

Anthropology: Eight Indigenous Games that Shape Cultural Identity in Soweto

The following eight indigenous games played in Soweto, passed through culture, help children shape identity. Through these games, different skills are acquired.

Meeting my childhood friends recently at the baby shower in Kagiso, a township next to Soweto, brought back memories of indigenous games we used to play and how these indigenous games shaped my identity. Culture is a way of life and it is passed from generation to generation. Looking back, eight indigenous games come to mind. Back then, we relied on our elders to teach us games that helped us acquire skills for the future. Various skills such as mathematics, storytelling, high jump, problem solving, active mind and body are acquired through full participation in indigenous games.

Children play the indigenous game called Chicago and shape identity.
 Credit: Children play the indigenous game called Chicago and shape identity.

 Indigenous games we play are a way of life.

“Tin bati” or “Chicago” is a game of tins played by girls and boys. Children collect empty branded tins and use them to play the game. They  collect empty tins from their own rubbish bins or the nearest stinking dumping site. They use a maximum of seven tins. Branded tins of lucky star pilchard fish, koo baked beans, nestle condensed milk, infant formula takes centre stage. They put them on top of each other, with the smallest tin  on top. Two groups  challenge each other.  One group stands opposite the packed tins while  the other group stands next to the tins. The players belonging to the other group will take turns hitting  the packed tins with a ball made of plastic or, if fortunate enough, a tennis ball.

Should the tins fall, which is exciting and where the drama unfolds, the other group  will try and hit members of the winning group with a ball to decrease their numbers and so that they can  have their turn to hit the tins. The winning group, in the meantime , will try to dodge the ball in order for them to re-build the tins.

Shaping identities in societies

Chicago is a game of tears and laughter. Children acquire skills such as speed and tricks. You need a strategy to either dodge the ball or aim and hit hard. While playing, you either expect to get a red , sore mark during this game or push a friend to tears. Depending on the pressure of the ball when it is released towards the opponents, the  ball lands on the  body and places you in an emotional state. Crying means weakness and ignoring the pain means strength. Gaining either one of these strengths shapes identity .

Streets of Soweto on a busy day Streets of Soweto on a busy day.

Narrative game of stones

I may not have been a leader of certain indigenous games that we played when we were young and innocent. . But there are few games that offer me a chance to share my storytelling skills and give me space for improvement.   Maskitlana is a game played by young girls and boys. We use stones to tell stories. These stones represent characters in a story. The more interesting the character, the better chance of telling a beautiful story and an opportunity to get a huge following. I hit the stones on the ground to initiate conversations as experienced with members of society. Telling stories is not everyone’s cup of tea. Even if you know how to tell a story,  there is a possibility that you might run out of ideas, which was rare to happen to me.

Remembering Soweto as a place of recital and cultural identity

My home was a hub of stories.  My father owned a loud music player and bought music when it was available. His friends gathered at my home in Mapetla , a township situated in Soweto. They came to listen to music and thereby creating a culture of dance, alcohol, concubines and various  genres of music from bubblegum, jazz,, rhythm and blues, sometimes pop  music.  I gained a huge following at school because I told interesting stories. As a storyteller, I made up other stories outside of the weekend culture as I experienced it. The stories I tell are not reports of the real story, but I refine and create new stories.  Participating in the indigenous game called Maskitlana helps shape identity.

Boy jumps a string made from a pair of stockings in the game called mgusha
Boy jumps on a string made from a pair of stockings in the game called mgusha. Credit:   

Playing indigenous games preserves culture and identity

Mgusha is a game played by both girls and boys. We cut a pair of stockings to make a string . Two players stand on opposite sides inside the string. The main player jumps the string without touching it, depending on where the string is positioned on the body . The ankles represent one, the knees represent two, the waist represents three, while four is positioned underneath the armpit. It is a miracle to reach four. If I do manage to jump four, it is due to the fact that controllers are shorter than me, which is unlikely. The purpose of mgusha is to jump the string without touching it until you reach seven, which is the top of the head. The tallest children can be found participating in world games such as high jump, thereby shaping their identity.

The girls focus during the indigenous game of diketo and shape identity by learning strategy
The girls focus on the indigenous game of diketo and shape identity by learning strategy. Credit:                                                                                                                                                                             

Diketo a game  of stones and strategy

Diketo is a game played by both girls and boys using stones. We draw a circle  on the ground or dig a hole in the ground. We insert a number of stones  inside the circle or hole while the main player holds one stone in the hand. To resume the game, the main player  throws the stone in the air, takes out stones in the circle and catches the thrown stone before it hits the ground. To seal the game, the main player throws the stone in the air again, returns the  stones in the circle , leaves a few outside and catches the stone before it hits the ground using one hand. This indigenous game needs focus and clear intentions. By  participating in the game of diketo, children  acquire the skill of strategy which most adults identify with.

children learn numbers by participating in indigenous games
Children learn numbers by participating in indigenous games. Credit:

Children learn numbers and share culture

We learn and educate others through culture. Scotch is another indigenous game that teaches children the skill of numbering. It is mostly enjoyed by younger children from the ages of three to eight. The older children teach the younger ones’ numbers by participating in this game. It is a highly energetic game and less competitive, another reason why it is favored and suitable for younger ones.
We sketch columns on the ground and write numbers from one to nine inside each column. It is a game that also uses stones to be played. If fortunate enough, a tin of sunbeam floor polish is used.

The main player throws a stone, bigger than the one we usually play diketo, or polishes the tin inside column one. Then jump to column two and other columns until coming back to column two and pick up the stone or tin using one leg. The rest of the game goes on like this until all nine columns are done. Falling or throwing a stone or tin outside the columns means the game is over and another player gets the chance to play.

We acquire skills when we participate in indigenous games.

The coolest thing about the game of scotch is that you can play it alone. Sometimes, when children play alone, as a way of practice, they gain confidence next time they play in a group. Playing scotch alone usually works in situations where you are banned from playing in the streets after  conducting yourself in an unacceptable manner. Instead of rolling on the floor crying till you are blue on the face or hearing hurtful words such as ‘ ha olle madi ( Sotho language)’ ; meaning ‘ you don’t cry blood’, the game of scotch or diketo, which you can also play alone, always come to the rescue. Children gain the skill of decision making. Playing alone allows them to practice and build confidence . In this way , children shape identities.

Memories of the sunset lighting the sky as we played with friends
Memories of sunset lighting the sky as we played with friends. Credit:

Black Mampatile is a game we play as a cultural practice in Soweto

Indigenous games have various games for every hour. Black Mampatile means ‘hide and seek’. It is played by both girls and boys. This indigenous game can be played either during the day or after sunset, depending on the mood and preferences.  As the name suggests ‘ hide and seek’, in this instance Black Mampatile, players hide and seek. One player, whom nobody wants to be, counts  from one to , say maybe twenty-five, depending on the rules of different townships. While counting, the other players hide and the other player searches in all places.

Forming relations , creating cultures and shaping identities

Younger children prefer to play the game during the day and usually their game does not last long because they play without motives. Mature children prefer to play the game after sunset. The dark hours give them, especially boys, an opportunity to initiate possible courtships, if fortunate, a kiss on the lips. And it turns out this is one of the games that girls are not let in from the beginning.  Boys, being boys, plan  how this game is going to fold up during the day when other games like diketo or chicago are played . Although big sisters warn  most innocent girls from participating in this game, other girls experience their first kisses during the game of black Mampatile.

Greetings is a way of life in Soweto and have been practiced ever since I can remember.

After love comes sad songs. Indigenous games teach children  different moments in life as they are experienced on a daily basis. Children shape identity by participating fully in indigenous games. Sawubona We Madlamini is a game children play innocently without  understanding the message in the lyrics  until they reach their teenage hood. It is a game of two friends who tell a story of friendship through song and clapping of hands. One of the beautiful games to come out of Soweto and other surrounding townships. The story goes like this; two friends, MaDlhamini and MaSithole, engage in a conversation.  MaSithole greets MaDlhamini and asks where she comes from. MaDlhamini tells her she comes from town to buy a hat. MaSithole gets jealous, especially after learning that the hat is expensive . The moral of the story is that in friendship there are also moments of love lost.

Number one game that mixes diverse languages spoken in Soweto

We all want to be loved and favoured over one another. This wanting to be first does not leave us. It stays with us until adulthood. Through indigenous games that are passed through culture,  we learn not only how high we can jump or how accurately we aim, we also learn how to handle rejection or honour.  Pikipiki Mabelane is a game where children recite a poem with the purpose of selecting members . For all indigenous games mentioned above,  this is the game that decides groups of players. Players make a circle with both clinched fists inside the circle. The leader counts the clinched fists,  hitting them followed by rhymes of a poem to render results.  Results determine where one belongs between two groups. Lyrics of  the recitation feature diverse languages like Sotho, Zulu, English, Afrikaans and biblical.

In a classroom, children learning joyfully
In a classroom,  Children learning joyfully. Credit:

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

The culture of indigenous games must be practiced consistently as a way of preserving culture.  Participating in indigenous games as a child was a time of self discovery and forming relations. Meeting childhood friends and engaging in childhood memories sparked conversations about these games. Looking back gave me an opportunity to assess how these games shaped my identity. It only occurred to me then, that the game of maskitlana was the indigenous thing that led me on a path of telling stories. If applied correctly and practiced regularly,  indigenous games help children acquire skills that are useful during adulthood.

It is therefore, important to pass the culture of participating in indigenous games by teaching children how to play them. The purpose of indigenous games is to help children shape identities through play. Participating fully in them helps children acquire skills which are the cornerstone of education. Children learn easily when they participate in games. Involving children in their learning by  using games can be fruitful. It allows them to be open to new experiences and let them share their individual identity with others.

School culture and other methods such as Indigenous games

Indigenous games can be incorporated into schools to teach children a number of skills. Schools must use other methods to teach children.  Other methods of teaching, such as indigenous games, can help children explore and understand the world around them. Two important facts of indigenous games are, they are played outdoors and packed with information that is easy to use.  The environmental perspective allows children to explore in familiar locations, which renders them an opportunity to understand concepts easily.

It is very interesting how most indigenous games use stones . The history of stones dates way back and has been a survival tool for generations. Using them as tools in indigenous games affirms that indigenous games have been in existence through mankind. They have come this far because they are fun to play,  put a smile on children’s faces and always a memory that will stay with me for as long as I can live.

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