Indigenous games are an educational and heritage trove

A Wits scholar hopes to preserve knowledge production systems passed down from generation to generation in the games children play, which are now at risk of disappearing.

Exams and fun don’t normally feature in the same sentence, never mind actually happening at a university. Yet for third-year fine arts student Nompumelelo Sambo, 20, this unusual combination brought sunshine to a cloudy Thursday afternoon in November at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she hosted an indigenous games play day as part of her practical exam. 

“I chose to focus on these games because most of the ‘games’ taught within South African education system are mainly influenced by Western culture,” said Sambo. “As a result, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds start to lose interest in African indigenous games.”

Lecturers were examining Sambo at this play day for adults just outside the university’s imposing Great Hall. The participating students could pick from skipping, hopscotch and um’gusha. Enthusiastic students nimble-footed their way through the games with a carefree spirit. If there had been a prize for the most exuberant player, it would have gone to the guy skipping in just his white socks. 

14 November 2019: Nompumelelo Sambo hopes to use indigenous games as a teaching tool.

While the atmosphere was jovial, everyone present recognised the significance of the moment. Sambo translated theory into the indigenous games play day with her beautifully illustrated Indigenous Games Manual for Amateurs, which was also part of her exams. “I am looking at the games that I grew up playing and that are still being played today in the township,” says Sambo, who grew up in Katlehong, Ekurhuleni.

The instruction booklet, which tells you how to play these games, took her five months to complete. At 42 pages, the manual packs a lot of punch and is clearly a labour of love for the young scholar. It includes artworks, academic papers drawn from early childhood development articles and interviews.

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The practical side of her project was clearly not just nostalgic. Historical memory was being excavated. Sambo sees the games as crucial to the country’s heritage. They preserve indigenous knowledge production systems. Also, when these games are linked to teaching, they can assist in transmitting knowledge, so that learners can do better in class. The use of indigenous games in learning abstract concepts, such as maths, provides learners with an opportunity to relate their everyday experiences to concepts and processes learned in the classroom.

“Many learners from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot see the connection between the education they receive at school and their everyday life values,” she says. “These games carry knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation. I am looking at the ideas and attitudes that live within these games.”

Sambo’s dedication to revive the games was fuelled by the possibility of their loss. “My inspiration comes from witnessing children playing these games … They may be forgotten soon because of Western technological gaming advances that have become largely popular,” she says.

Growing up in Katlehong, Sambo remembers playing a game called three toti, which is played by five or more people. Her face lights up: “You know every day at noon we meet up. You [had] to be done with your house chores … [We were] making our own game festival in a way.”

To play three toti, participants had to improvise using what was at hand: a stack of empty pilchard or baked bean cans or a ball made of plastic bags, newspapers and socks. 

Nono Motlhoki, 21, was one of the participants at the Indigenous Games Day at Wits. Like they do for Sambo, games carried happy memories of her childhood. Unfortunately, because her family moved around quite a bit, Motlhoki didn’t play games as much as she would have liked.

14 November 2019: Nono Motlhoki was one of the participants at the Indigenous Games Day held in front of the Great Hall at Wits University.
14 November 2019: Nono Motlhoki was one of the participants at the Indigenous Games Day held in front of the Great Hall at Wits University.

With a smile, she recalls visiting her grandmother during school holidays, which meant finding a chance to play. “I remember the excitement of getting home to my grandmother’s place – the joy, the kisses, the hugs.” But what most mattered to her younger self was “knowing that I have friends to play the games with”. 

Motlhoki’s favourite game was skop die bol (kick the ball), similar to dodgeball. The main objective is to eliminate all members of the opposing team by throwing a ball at them. Players must dodge the ball to remain in the game and the team that manages to eliminate all of their opponents first are the winners. Although she was only nine, she played with friends who were as old as 18. She felt “affirmed” and part of the community as age difference melted away. Motlhoki blames the climate of violence and crime for robbing today’s children of the chance to play in the streets like she and her peers did.

The man with the white socks, Brian Montshiwa, 21, was a joy to watch at the Indigenous Games Day. Giddy with happiness, he excelled at skipping, which is popular among both boys and girls. As with everyone else, the games took him to his childhood years. “I grew up playing quite a lot because home was not a safe space,” Montshiwa says. “And also being a queer, I had to find something to play that was not gendered, without having to be cornered to play ‘boy’ games.”

14 November 2019: Brian Montshiwa, 21, an enthusiastic participant, excelled at skipping.
14 November 2019: Brian Montshiwa, 21, an enthusiastic participant, excelled at skipping.

Like Motlhoki, Montshiwa is grateful to Sambo for documenting indigenous games and knowledge by producing her manual. “It’s important that Sambo archive these games because I don’t think two generations from now that anyone below the age of 18 is going to be talking [about] and playing these games,” Montshiwa says. “This archiving is about the recovery of history.”

Holding the games at Wits was a way for Sambo to stage a “new knowledge system that’s been ignored within the institution”. It was her attempt at “decolonising” the institution, she says.

Ignored for too long

Writing the Indigenous Games Manual for Amateurs was difficult. There wasn’t much information on the internet or in books. Designing the manual in a way that would be accessible and relatable for different groups of people added to the challenge. There was also no budget for printing. “I used my own money.”

Sambo is not alone in wishing to see the revival of the indigenous games. In The Importance of Indigenous Games, scholar David Bogopa notes that “indigenous games in South Africa risk extinction”. His article traced the richness of indigenous heritage and argued that everyone should be able to share in it and become actively involved.

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He claims “indigenous games have been ignored for a long time” and that “there is a need for the government as well as private sector to pump funding [into the games] so that sports departments throughout the country can be in a position to organise cultural activities as well as competitions to restore the cultural heritage”. Bogopa suggests creating a new policy that insists indigenous games be included as a sport in schools.

In another article, Nkopodi Nkopodi and Mogege Mosimege show how indigenous games such as morabaraba (a game of checkers) can be used to aid learning. “It was found that learners enjoy playing the game, and that it can be used … to promote the learning of mathematics … Various mathematics concepts … identified in different indigenous games can be related to both geometry and algebra and other points of focus,” the writers say. “Play is a relevant tool to help achieve this connection if it can be linked to school mathematics.” 

Enshrining heritage

Sambo’s endeavours aren’t in isolation. Mickey Modisane, chief director of communication services for the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC), believes indigenous games should be elevated. Already the DSAC hosts an Indigenous Games Festival, a national celebration of South African indigenous sports through provincial and national competitive championships. The event takes place in September, the country’s heritage month.

Activities include a traditional fashion show, cultural kraal, food festival and cultural parade. “These activities continue to operate as a staunch reminder of what makes us who we are. These activities are a vehicle [for] games, fashion, food, arts, crafts and music,” Modisane says.

14 November 2019: The event’s creator, Nompumelelo Sambo, fears indigenous games might soon be lost as children stop playing on the streets.
14 November 2019: The event’s creator, Nompumelelo Sambo, fears indigenous games might soon be lost as children stop playing on the streets.
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