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