Traditional Games in Haiti

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we explore different games played by the people of Haiti. Using simple supplies, or none at all, both children and adults find rich entertainment in a nation challenged by hardships.

Haiti: A Proud History of Brave Struggles

Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, one of the largest in the Caribbean, with the Dominican Republic. Although the two countries share an island, their cultures are very different. The majority of the Haitian people descend from African slaves who overthrew their masters in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The predominant language, Haitian Creole, is a creole of French, various African languages, and some Spanish. The Dominican Republic, however, is predominately Spanish-speaking and Hispanic.

Map of Haiti
Map of Haiti

Known for being densely populated and troubled with extreme poverty, Haiti also suffers occasional disasters caused by hurricanes and earthquakes. Additionally, an HIV epidemic rocked the nation in the 80s and 90s, further draining the country's resources and bringing tragedy to many families.

Flag of Haiti
Flag of Haiti

In such a place, with so many hardships, one might think the people do not find happiness or enjoy fun pastimes. However, the people of Haiti still find great joy in life, and both children and adults partake of many games to fill the day with fun. Let's take a look at some of these traditional Hatian games.

Osselets

Osselets, pronounced oss-LAY, is an interesting cross between jacks and dice games. It is traditionally played with the knuckle bones of goats. While today plastic and metal game pieces often replace the bones, some Haitians still play with the traditional materials.

When the knucklebone is thrown, it has four sides on which it could land: the front or creux, the back or dos, the straight side or i, and the curved side or s.

Gold plated knucklebones
Gold plated knucklebones

The game begins with the first player tossing four of the osselets in the air and letting them land. A fifth osselet remains in the player's hand. This fifth osselet serves the purpose of the ball in a game of jacks and is sometimes replaced by a rubber ball when available. The player tosses it in the air and attempts to pick up a set number of osselets from the ground as required in each turn before catching the tossed osselet on its way down. Making the game even trickier, each round requires the player to turn the osselets, as the player can only pick up an osselet with the correct side facing up.

The first round is dos with the requirement of picking up only those pieces turned with the back facing up. First, the player turns pieces so that the back side faces up and picks up one piece at a time until they have them all. Then, they pick up two at a time, following by picking up three at once and then the remaining one, and finally, they pick up all four at once. In the next round the player repeats this sequence with pieces turned with the front side, or creux, side up, followed by a round with the straight, or i, side up, and a round with the curved side, or s, turned up. The fifth round requires the player to pick up all four osselets while each one bears a different side on top: a back, a front, a straight, and a curved. The first player to complete all five rounds wins the game.

Warri

Warri, a version of the ancient game of Mancala, is played throughout the Caribbean. Warri uses a rectangular board with two rows of six holes, but in the absence of a board, players can dig rows of holes in the ground. To begin, players fill the holes with four seeds each. The first player selects a hole from the row on their side, scoops up the seeds, and deposits one seed in each successive hole, moving in a counterclockwise direction. When a player drops their last seed in an empty hole they may capture their opponent's pieces on the opposite side of the board if that hole contains only one or two seeds. The first player to capture twenty-five seeds wins the game.

Warri board

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