It is Saturday afternoon in a narrow alley next to a modest home in the suburbs of Bridgetown. Shaded by a rusted iron paling, several men are taking turns to sit in pairs astride an old wooden bench. Between each pair lies an unusual-looking board game. Its worn surface is punctuated by a series of hollows, each containing a cluster of shiny grey seeds.
As matches get under way, gnarled fingers, calloused by a lifetime’s hard work, flash deftly across the board, distributing seeds from hollow to hollow. Concentration is intense; talk is limited to a few words peppered by the odd chuckle. Although friendly, the action is fiercely competitive and charged with excitement.
The game is Warri, one of the most interesting examples of African heritage surviving in the Caribbean today. The players are among the last of a dying breed in Barbados, where the game seems threatened with extinction.
Typical of the players, and host of the gathering, is 77-year-old William “Ossie” Haddock, retired engineer, artisan and gentleman of the old school. His friend Laurie Greaves is a sprightly and articulate 72-year-old farmer and former lighterman. The baby of the bunch is Frederick “The Lord Jesus” Jackman, a 57-year-old fisherman popularly regarded as the country’s top Warrior.
They have been playing for most of their lives, and share a passion for Warri; in Ossie’s words, they are prepared to play themselves dizzy. And they all harbour the belief that today’s youngsters have too many options to be interested in keeping the game alive.
As if to belie this conviction, two younger players are also present. But it’s no coincidence that Michael Haddock, 27, and Marcus Watts, 21, are Ossie’s son and nephew. And they have found no serious competition in their own age group.
Warri has been handed down through successive generations for the past 350 years. It is now played mainly by small pockets of enthusiasts in suburban Bridgetown, the fishing communities of the west coast and the northern town of Speightstown. But the game boasts a long and noble lineage that can be traced back many centuries.
Based on counting skills, Warri is played by two contestants on an elongated wooden board containing 12 hollows. At the start of play, four seeds are placed in each hollow. The object of the game is to capture the majority of the seeds. Like many other folk arts, however, Warri’s deceptive simplicity conceals formidable complexities.
Believed to be one of the world’s oldest games and to have derived from some sort of abacus used in accounting, it belongs to the Mancala pit-and-pebble game family that originated in the Sudan. Spread throughout western Africa, it was subsequently brought to the West Indies by slaves in the 17th century.
It flourished in St. Lucia, Grenada, Martinique, Dominica, St. Kitts, Suriname, Antigua and Barbados, but it gradually fell into decline and is mostly played in the latter two countries these days. Antigua, with its legions of dedicated players and a vibrant National Warri Association, could well be regarded as the last bastion of Warri in the Caribbean.
One man who has good reason to lament the decline of Warri is William Lee Farnum-Badley, the sole manufacturer of the boards and self-appointed guardian of the game in Barbados. A former business development officer with the Barbados Industrial Development Corporation, he is committed to the revival of Warri and has been producing boards and promoting the game since 1990.
Initiated at the age of 12 by local fishermen, Farnum went on to refine his skills at home by drawing chalk circles on the ground and using casuarina berries as seeds. He soon discovered that there was a lot more to the game than met the eye.
“The game of Warri, the name of which derives from the Ijo language and means ‘houses’, is played here exactly as the Asante in Ghana play Oware – right down to the identical Borse ‘nicker’ (Caesalpinia bonduc) seeds used as ‘men’. Another Barbadian version, Round De Town, is a Yoruba variation. This must tell us something about our roots, and the fact that the game has survived intact must tell us something about ourselves.
“It may also account, to some extent, for the conspicuous absence of the game in such islands as Trinidad, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Perhaps the communities that settled there were from parts of Africa that did not consider this game of such importance.”
Farnum passionately wants the game to survive. “Apart from enriching the culture of the Caribbean, it’s a piece of tradition that we can call our own – an indigenous folk art as opposed to so many of the handicrafts and popular arts that we are marketing these days.”
Farnum can take credit for an ever-widening circle of interest. But he regretfully admits that out of every ten boards sold, only one is bought by a Barbadian, and none have been purchased by any of the old masters. An explanation might be found in the Haddock back yard. Ossie, while admiring both Farnum’s initiative and the beauty of his products, is unlikely to part with the old pine board he won in a tournament 30 years ago. “The Lord Jesus”, meanwhile, cherishes a board he was given 18 years ago by a blind player.
Laurie Greaves, who spent many a childhood day practising with pebbles in the dirt, will never replace the treasured 50-year-old board passed on by a mentor. And Michael is lovingly, laboriously, carving a robust greenheart model designed to stand the test of time.
Old Warriors, and their boards, never die.