Chess: A Wolof Epic Tale

Alexander Taylor - Senegal

April 11, 2019

When I was four years old, I remember watching my parents play chess in the
evenings. They would prop me on a chair next to the table with some toys,
but I would be watching them play. Watching them deliberately move their
pieces, capture pieces, and eventually yell, “Check” or “Checkmate.” I
remember my mom telling me that the board was like King Arthur’s Court. She
made it sound so magical. The Pawns were the brave soldiers; the Rook, the
guards of Camelot; the Knight was Lancelot; the Bishop was Merlin and of
course Queen Genevieve and King Arthur stood at the helm. The dark kingdom
across the board was the infamous Modred, the villain, and his evil army.
As I learned to play strategically, these were the epic battles I fought on
the chess board.

Over the last few months, I have been teaching the children at the
elementary school, the students at the high school and the adults in the
community, how to play chess. It has been a challenging exercise, teaching
a game that has been such an instrumental part of my life, in a foreign
language. As I work with my students in their native tongue, Wolof, their
heads nod eagerly or, at times, they giggle. I try to connect the chess
pieces to the epics of Senegal, their stories, their folklore, and their
world. In order for this game to come to life and engaging, I must first
immerse myself in their perspective and history.

I begin by comparing the pieces to figures they can relate to. The Bishop
is now the Marabout. The Marabouts are Islamic leaders throughout Senegal
and have a comparable ranking to what a bishop would have relative to the
leader. The pawns become the “Beukk Nekk”, a specific term for the guards
who protect the Marabout. The King is now calledl Boor, the Wolof term for
ruler. The Rook, Kerge Boor, or the king’s house, as both pieces when put
together make the castle, or home of the king. I connect the strategy to
Wolof culture and former Wolof society.

Now my students are not only learning the coordinates of the moves but are
connecting to a larger story and battle. They are playing now, for hours as
their imaginations explore the conquering of evil or as they maneuver to
overcome defeat.

Teaching them the game through their culture, their eyes, in Wolof instead
of French, not from a borrowed western lens has also enhanced my experience
of the game and opened up whole new experiences for me. The game of chess
is complex and multi-faceted. My students are not just learning the game,
but how to utilize long-term strategies and short-term tactics that will
help develop critical reasoning skills for the future.

People recommended that I used French to teach the game because they
believed it would be too complex to teach in Wolof. I was told by people
that the game would be too foreign. But once the pieces were redefined and
placed in the context of Senegalese culture and through the Wolof language,
people felt at home with the game.

Before I go, I want to learn how to play Mancala, one of the oldest games
still around which has great popularity in Senegal. In the meantime, I will
continue to teach during the last 17 days of my time in Senegal, one epic
tale at a time.

Alexander Taylor