Kenya Field School students Austin and Alex, Program Assistant and Maa-speaker Sauna, and men from a warrior boma play a game of Eramat in Kajiado County. Photo courtesy of Alex Hickling.

In 2012, we piloted a culturally relevant board game with members of multiple Maasai communities in southern Kenya to explore the accelerating boom-bust drought and hunger cycle in the region. The dynamics driving the phenomena modeled in the game are rooted in greatly increased population densities in the area, cultural values and evolving pastoral practices of the participating Maasai, and the ebb and flow dynamics of the semi-arid environment in which they live. The board game, called Eramat (“mind your cattle” in the Maa language), was developed in consultation with members of various Maasai communities and then piloted in six Maasai communities in June and July 2012 as part of James Madison U’s Kenya Field School. Maa speaking interpreters, trained in the rules of the game, assisted in teaching the game to Maasai players, as well as recorded comments and feedback about the game.

Kenya Field School students Austin and Alex, Program Assistant and Maa-speaker Sauna, and men from a warrior boma play a game of Eramat in Kajiado County. Photo courtesy of Alex Hickling.

The game places each player in the role of a pastoralist head of household who must manage the cattle herd and other resources in the face of dynamics created by the interactions of an arid climate, family needs, and other social constraints. Each round of the game represents one year of life and thus four seasons (two rainy seasons and two dry seasons, each of different lengths of time). The players face and respond to a variety of dynamics, some predictable (e.g., school fees due three times a year), and others not (the amount of rainfall during the wet seasons, water availability in any season, the draw of “life cards” that trigger significant life events for the player). There are cattle markets and a bank, but players can also form alliances and buy, sell and trade amongst themselves. The game even accounts for natural growth and attrition rates of cattle, the primary livestock in both the game and the actual lives of the rural Maasai communities in which we piloted the game.

Participants in game pilots included village elders, warriors, Field School students from America, and others. While we did include women, it was far easier to recruit men who seemed to have more time to play the game, and for as long as five continuous hours in one case.

Eramat serves as a learning tool for pastoralists and non-pastoralists, Kenyans and non-Kenyans. It uses rules, symbols and language attuned to Maasai core values and pastoral praxis and allows players to explore alternative strategies for survival and engage in conversations about past experiences and outcomes. Feedback from Maasai participants about the game included statements such as, “Whoever made this game understands our llives.” Further, many players used the gaming milieu to discuss real-life strategies. As one elder said, “This feels real. What should we do?” And another stated, “I need to play this game over and over to learn.”

While there is much more data to share, including colorful commentary by many players, our overall observations of game dynamics suggest that the culturally attuned game elements were effective, had strong appeal and sparked meaningful conversations. Beyond the rules of the game, but complementary to them, several Maasai players projected their own aesthetic ideals onto their otherwise generic cattle (represented via cards), courted other players for strategic alliances (e.g., marriage exchanges of offspring), and launched into historical and aspirational conversations about their herds. Meanwhile, the US students who played the game overall were less sentimental about livestock but would gladly enter into alliances with Maasai players, though more because the students were flattered by the invitation than because of specific proactive strategizing.

In sum, we happily report that Eramat is an enjoyable, portable board game that provides insights and self-awareness about decision-making in the presence of complex dynamics, as well as how different value systems impact pastoral strategies and outcomes. This enables experimentation for new strategies, and allows for “virtual immersion” in another culture’s experiences for non-Maasai players. We will continue to refine the game to account for alliances and cattle value, and intend to incorporate the newest iteration into JMU’s Kenya Field School in 2013. Then, we will visit some of the same communities as in 2012, as well as some additional Maa-speaking communities north of Nairobi.

To learn more about AfAA and to find more details about the annual awards, please visit our website. Please send photos and column ideas to Jennifer Coffman, James Madison University, coffmaje@jmu.edu.

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