challenging Ugandan tourism to a game of dool

If you haven’t heard of the game ‘Mah Jong’, this is your opportunity to Google it, as we consider the potential of a local Ugandan game called Dool.

Mah Jong is a simple tile or card game, and has led to many others being created as a result – across Continents. The history of the game goes back to the 18th Century in China and the earliest surviving Mah Jong tile is said (according to Wikipedia) to date back to 1870.

That’s about the time the first White Men came to Uganda and stopped over in Buganda for a while.

White men are central to the discussion here, as the thoughts below came to me because of two tours of white men who visited Uganda briefly on business last week and took the opportunity to tour one of the oldest traditional Kingdoms in the world – the Buganda Kingdom.

I became Tour Guide for a while, for, taking them round various installations in Buganda, around Kampala, explaining the history of the Kingdom. I had with me a good collection of my history – personal and academic – and an official guide from the Buganda Kingdom who did a good job of keeping them engaged.

They certainly enjoyed the tour and confessed that they had learnt facts about Uganda and Buganda that they did not imagine even existed. One of them was amazed that we had so much happening here before the first White Man set foot on this soil – which is not surprising since many Ugandans, by virtue of our education, are in the same boat and yet we live here every day driving and walking past a lot of evidence of an admirable civilization that has existed for centuries.

This is not a history lesson – that will come elsewhere.

I was disturbed, at the end of the tours, that besides photographs the tourists had no mementos to carry off with them back to their homelands to remind them of what they had heard, seen and experienced.

The best option would have been for them to spend a little bit of money on items from the Kingdom cultural centers, therefore putting cash into the hands of local artisans, the Kingdom, and maybe even the Uganda Revenue Authority.

That didn’t happen – mostly because there were few opportunities to do so. The few points that offered items on sale were inside little, cramped, walled rooms where not much effort was made to entice my tourists to spend anything.

But besides that, there was zero effort at making them walk off with a small piece of Buganda – even free of charge.

Until, on the last tour, I hit on an idea. The story about the Kabak’anjagala tree (Candlenut tree – Aleurites moluccanus) being planted on both sides of the King’s Mile from the Bulange to the Lubiri always caught their interest. There are 52 trees, one for each of the Clans of Buganda, lined up on either side of that Precious Mile.

As we were leaving the Lubiri, I went off to find a fruit of the Kabak’anjagala (which, in English, means ‘the King loves me’) and, as always, found some kernels (seeds) lying around. I gathered them up and presented them, dusty and all, to my tourist.

Photo: Simon Kaheru (using the other hand)

Before he could take them up though, I offered to demonstrate what they were for and challenged Tom Kyembe, my Buganda Guide, to a game of Dool.

I can confidently state here that in my much younger days I was a local champion at the game of Dool. This is a game once described by a prefect in my school as “a manipulation of the fingers to project small, hard stones into the distance…”

It is much more entertaining than that, and even though Tom and I squatted to play without digging up a peal (the hole) and didn’t declare whether it was a ’nothings game’ or not, and also didn’t shout out ’Teach!’ and ‘Changes!’ at points, we almost got carried away but didn’t get to the point of asking each other, “Dool?”

Our tourist was fascinated that we had had marbles played here for hundreds of years. The last time I played the game was some months ago as I taught the children how fascinating it was, as opposed to the PS2/Xbox. That effort was dismal, but the tourist last weekend was impressed.

I hope he actually took the dools home with him.

And herein lies that very simple, low-cost but high value opportunity: If that Buganda Kingdom tour can incorporate the game of Dool and have some young people on ground (literally squatting, as that is how it is played) playing that game as a demonstration, tourists will be agog.

Not only that, they will buy up kernels of kabak’anjagala to take home with them and teach their children how to play ‘African Marbles’. The possibilities are endless: Sets of 52 kabak’anjagalas – one from each of the Clan trees; books with instructions of how to play Dool; autographed photographs of dignitaries playing dool; highly decorated kabak’anjagala pieces; kabak’anjagala that the Kabaka himself (or the Katikiro or the Kiweewa) once played Dool with…

Even before all that we (or the Kingdom) could organize clan-based Dool tournaments pitting each of the 52 clans against the other, where players originate and represent only their own clans. Dools from each of the 52 trees could be marketed and sold as such, branded for each clan totem and akabbiro. Every day, each clan Dool representative could collect the dools that drop from their tree, polish them, and then put them in the Dool store for sale to visitors and tourists.

A whole crafts industry could be made to germinate from one kabak’anjagala seed if we are imaginative, raking in millions in serious currencies.

Not only that, the game of marbles is world famous across all the continents. Our own version exists in Kenya as ‘bano’ and in India as ‘kancha’; I found a photograph on the internet of boys in Mexico playing marbles some time between 1862 and 1877, and another photograph depicting American President Teddy Roosevelt with other fellow soldiers (at the time) playing a game of marbles.

We could have those nationalities streaming in to marvel at the similarities as well as run tournaments. There IS a World Marbles Federation that runs World Marbles Championships, mostly in the Czech Republic. If we got these guys to discover that we have been playing Dool going back over 700 years, then maybe we will have them coming over as curious tourists and staging tournaments here…

The possibilities are myriad, all from this simple, ubiquitous tree that grows wild, thick and fruitful – but these are only possibilities if we gather our marbles together.



tears at Ndere Centre: a tale of melody, humour and culture galore

My tears started flowing freely last Friday night just three minutes after I had taken my seat at the Ndere Centre.

I was hosting a couple of journalist friends from Finland to a night out on the town, on their first visit to East Africa, and Uganda in particular.

This should have been their first evening treat in Kampala but we had to push it to the last night because of scheduling issues since they had arrived so late the Saturday night before and immersed themselves straight into work.

Even as I was considering the idea of going to the Ndere Centre with them, I was emotionally shaky because of my links to the place; Stephen Rwangyezi, the proprietor, producer, lead performer and cultural guru, had been my primary school music teacher and made quite an influence on my life – directly and through my brothers as well.

As I was taking my seat I marvelled at the way his personal energy was projecting from the centre of the arena through the open amphitheatre that guests occupy at this place.

The first time I had visited this place, in Kisaasi, the road there was dusty and the trip a little taxing, but the passion he expressed as he walked us round the venue back then made it look as neat and flowery exactly as it did last Friday, and the comparison unnerved me considerably.

In my mind, the first real home of the Ndere Troupe was in my childhood neighbourhood in Lugala, at the very top of the hill where my parents now live and that we all lovingly call home, where the dancers had (maybe still do) dormitories and practice areas whose drums sounded every so often without irritation and complaint from those of us in the surrounding area.

So when Rwangyezi began the move to Kisaasi it was natural for us to pay a courtesy call, and again a couple more times thereafter, noting on each visit how much closer he was to achieving the dream he had set out for back when I was still an impressionable, wet-behind-the-ears child, wide-eyed at his wealth of culture, melody and humour.

Photo Courtesy of
Photo Courtesy of

Last Friday, I was an adult again wide-eyed at this wealth of culture, melody and humour, and wet in the eyes at how well this man has done for himself and for his country.

In fact, I was a little ashamed that I had gone so many years without coming back here.

This year Ndere is celebrating thirty years in existence – Rwangyezi launched his group back when he was my music and drama teacher, and I remember the temptation of joining him but I but had far superior rivals who didn’t take up the opportunities either. Two of them – Peter Kagwa and my young brother Paul – now run their own events management firms, no little thanks to his personal tutelage back then.

Watching the performances, I realised that many of us cherish weekends because we get to attend traditional ceremonies where the highlight, let’s be honest for a minute, is the dancing and singing by hired troupes such as Ndere and the many branches that have sprouted from Rwangyezi’s brave move starting a cultural troupe.

Some of you only watch national ceremonies on television because of those traditional dances.

That night, Rwangyezi introduced an old Munyankore man who he said had left his home comforts to join Ndere so that the cultural knowledge he had in his head could be shared with the next generation.

Later, he had us learning how to respond to akarimojong – with “Maatta” – and went through a volley of greetings led by a nubile ngakarimojong who enquired after the weather, cows, crops, rain, soil, furniture…everything. And all was “Maatta“.

And after the akarimojong greeting tutorial, he announced: “In our cultures when we greet we don’t just say ‘Hi-Hi!’ …I mean who is low?!” triggering another burst of laughter at the unexpected flippancy.

The entire Ndere production is amazingly creative, maintaining the authenticity of our cultures while mixing in modernity in movement and choreography, punctuated by Rwangyezi’s humorous narrative that makes you feel, in those muscles at the top of your shoulders, as if you could have spent the evening at a stand-up comedy show but are getting much more value for your shillings.

And for me, the flow of the dancers brought fresh tears with each successive dance.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

When the Rwandese Warriors broke out with Nyaruguru I remembered many a night with my father-in-law smiling in appreciation and a couple of times joining in the dance to this very song, performed live by Jean Paul Samputu himself.

Some of you may never have heard of the trumpets of West Nile, even though you do know names like Louis Satchmo Armstrong and fork out ten times the Ndere entrance fee for the annual Jazz Safari.

The Agwarra and Adungu sounded fantastic and led to a humorous lesson in geography and history narrated by Rwangyezi in full and embellished as, “The Agwarra and Adungu played by Adiku of the Alur, whose neighbours are Arua and Adjumani and produced a President called Amin…”!

The thundering Barundi drums heralded in the climax of the night but could themselves have allowed us to leave on a justifiable high.

But that was the job of the Larakaraka, erupting in Ndere’s signature pot-balancing dance  – high tempo, technicolour, upbeat, vibrant, vibrating, throbbing, promising, pulsing, pulsating, undulating, ululating, mellifluously causing us to draw in breath while cautiously applauding with an irrational fear that out movement might topple the pots the girls had stacked on their heads….Two,  three, four…seven, eight!

NINE pots stacked on the heads of girls with different hairstyles, of different height, all gyrating and swinging and smiling and weaving in and about each other in the choreographed beauty that Uganda always presents if you visit the right places and meet the right people – as my Finnish friends did last week.