Africa

Sets in Africa are almost only made for the tourist market. South of the Sahara there exist hardly any chess tradition. I believe there is one chess grandmaster at the moment. Please correct me, if I’m wrong. In northern Africa chess was played indeed. Throughout Africa chess sets are made in workshops where they make other things as well.
The book of Ned Munger (Munger/I 1996) is a valuable source to learn about African chess sets. Also the new book of Patrice Plain (Plain/III 2021) is very informative.

Benin or Nigeria. This cutting art from thornwood is thought to have started in Owo, Nigeria by Justus Dojomo Akeredolu, craft teacher at a public school in 1930. He wanted to find a substance, which was easy to cut and suitable for small details. He began to experiment with the wood of the thorns of the silk cotton tree. He learned the cutting art with this wood to its pupils, and today it is a narrative cutting art of detail and ability, showing daily performances of life. The thorns have shades of golden yellow to chocolate brown. Skilled cutters are using that to create special effects. I have never seen thornwood sets painted. These sets are made by the Yoruba for the tourist market, I believe. Plain/III 2021 mentions Benin, but 2nd set was bought in Lagos.

In the original design represents white the Yoruba and black the Hausa. The white King is an Oba, with veiled dressing. The Oba of Benin is the traditional ruler and the custodian of the culture of the Edo people and all Edoid people. Also the black King, an emir, has a veiled dressing. In the later version, of which 2 examples are listed here, is the original topic no longer understood. The distinction between the two parties is gone. The King is carried out as a man with crown or hat. The better carved 1st set has a woman veiled in dressing, exactly as the Oba in the original design, but now as Queen. A change of persons has taken place here! The box of that set as an Oba in relief outstretched on the cover. This pattern and monoblock type of set is quite rare, despite you see 2 here.

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  • Benin/Nigeria, after J. Dojomo Akeredolu
  • ca. 1980
  • Thornwood K 5.4; p 3.0-3.3
  • Box 10.5×20.0×9.6
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  • Benin/Nigeria, Lagos, after J. Dojomo Akeredolu
  • 1986
  • Thornwood K 5.9; p 3.7

Burkina Faso set with pretty original and brightly painted bronze figurines made with the so-called "cire-perdue" (lost wax) method. The dark bronze colour is obtained by heating the pieces in waste oil. In this set the dark pieces are painted black as well. These sets are always indicated as made by the Ashanti tribe for the tourist market. However, the Ashanti homeland is Ghana and it is very unlikely that they did make these sets. The largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso is the Mossi.

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  • Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou
  • ca. 1950
  • Bronze K 6.8; p 5.2

Burkina Faso or Mali. This cast bronze set has been made with the so called "cire-perdue" method from ship-generated waste. According Munger/I 1996 are these sets stimulated by the colourful iron Burkina Faso sets. The antelope is quite like the famous wooden figures with long graceful horns carved by the Bambara, a tribe in Mali. The itinerant Hausa does trade the sets, which is the reason that not always a precise origin can be determined. This set was bought in Ouagadougou. I have a similar set listed at the Mali page.

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  • Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou
  • 1985
  • Bronze K 7.2; T 10.0; p 5.0
  • Note that a similar set can be found at Mali page

Congo-Brazzaville This is a very cute set made of wood, burlap and chicken feathers.

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  • Congo-Brazzaville
  • 1960-1980
  • Wood, Burlap and Chicken feathers K ca. 9.0; p 6.0

Congo-Kinshasa is my best estimate for this set, but I do not know exact origin or date.

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  • Congo-Kinshasa
  • 1940
  • Ivory K 5.4; p 2.3

Congo-Kinshasa sets of well know tribal and hunting theme. The name "Congo" means hunter after all. Remarkable are the crocodiles as Knights.

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  • Congo-Kinshasa
  • 1980
  • Ivory K 8.9; p 3.9
  • Box/board 45.0×45.0×5.8
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  • Congo-Kinshasa
  • 1985
  • Ivory K 9.8; p 5.4

Egypt A very large and better than average carved bone set with motives typical for these type of sets. The 2nd set has similar motives, but is very crudely carved. These sets were made for the tourist market.

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  • Egypt
  • Mid 20th century
  • Bone K 13.0; p 8.7
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  • Egypt, Cairo
  • 1981
  • Bone K 6.1; p 4.8

Ghana is my renewed (formerly I thought Guinea-Conakry) estimate of the origin, based on Plain/III 2021. It is an exceptional large set. Note that I have put a Lego mini-figure of Robin Hood at the pictures to emphasize the huge size of this set. Note that the board (not part of set) in the pictures is over 60 by 60 cm, and it fits just! The set most likely made by Ashanti.

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  • Ghana, by Ashanti
  • 1960-1980
  • Wood K 20.3; p 9.6

Guinea-Conakry set that is better than average to African standards. Nice board as well.

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  • Guinea-Conakry
  • 1994
  • Ivory + ebony K 9.0; p 5.9
  • Board 39.2×39.2

Abagusii means people from Mogusii. Mogusii was a leader of the Gusii’s tribe at late 18th century. “Kisii” is the Swahili name that the British colonial administration used as well, and it is still the common name used by other inhabitants of Kenya.
"Kisii" stone is a soapstone (Steatite) that is mined in Tabaka in open pit mine.

Kenya sets of Kisii stone exist in several sizes, colours and themes. In the examples there is a theme with animals, the others are tribal figures. The white with grey one is the most common pattern of these sets, although the grey colour is less common. The red with black set is similar but better carved as average and in unusual colour. White and pink are the most common colours. In the examples you see small variations (mainly King). The very large set is rare.

Known as kisii, Kenyan soapstone is found only in the Tabaka Hills in western Kenya. It is a rather soft kind of soapstone with is easy to work with. The skilled carvers do use primitive tools and after the carving the pieces are rubbed with coconut-fat or coconut-oil, which gives them their beautiful luster. These sets are made by the Abagusii (or Gusii), also called Kisii people for the tourist market. The Gusii are a subgroup of the western Bantu who, many centuries ago, migrated from what is now Uganda. Eventually settling in the Kisii Highlands in Kenya sometime in the 1500s, the Gusii soon started a tradition of soapstone carving.

Although I did had several chess sets, all given to me, I was not considering myself a collector until I bought the animal theme set on the artisanal art market in Avignon in 1996. It was the very first set I bought myself, just because I liked it.

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  • Kenya, by Abagusii (=Kisii people)
  • 1983
  • Kisii stone K 11.3; p 5.2
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  • Kenya, by Abagusii (=Kisii people)
  • 1996
  • Kisii stone K 9.6; p 5.4-6.1
  • Board 38.0×38.0
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  • Kenya, by Abagusii (=Kisii people)
  • 1997
  • Kisii stone K 13.9; p 5.5
  • Board 35.1×34.8
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  • Kenya, by Abagusii (=Kisii people)
  • 1997
  • Kisii stone K 15.5; p 6.5
  • Board 45.0×45.0
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  • Kenya, by Abagusii (=Kisii people)
  • 2000
  • Kisii stone K 13.3, p 6.5
  • Board Ø xx.x
  • Kenya, by Abagusii (=Kisii people)
  • ca. 2000
  • Kisii stone K 7.8-9.7; p 3.3-4.2

Madagascar set of above average quality.

King Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra (1777-1810) founded, after domestic battle, the Merina (or Hava-) kingdom. Legend is that the kingdom was founded at the place where a spontaneous source arose when the King put down his staff on the ground. The simple staff became the King's sceptre. The Merina tribe is the largest ethnic group among the 19 Madagascar tribes and covers 26% of the population. To African standard is this large set exceptionally well carved and has a very nice table with inlay. It is one of my favourites.

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  • Madagascar, Ambositra, by Zafimaniry group
  • 1998
  • Eucalyptus K 13.4; p 11.1
  • Rosewood table/board 55.3×55.3×41.0
  • This light-brown rosewood is found in Madagascar only

Malawi has several larger workshops, where, among other things, chess sets are made. Munger/I 1996 describes four main centres, all in the south and all carvers are Yao. Plain/III 2021 describes sets made by Chewa people with tribal theme and rarely seen sets from Lomwe people with an animal theme. Munger/I 1996 lists following woods for light side: kadale, mpasa, bwemba (red) and mkomwa and for dark side: mphingo and msumwa. These woods are very hard and it is amazing that they can carve that beautiful in it. The quality of the carving is often above average, according African standards of course. I do like these African sets very much.

The origin of the 1st set is an estimate of me, but I'm pretty sure it is from Malawi. Unsure about makers. The age is more reliable. Very nice feature are the babies at the back of the Queens.

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  • Malawi
  • 1960-1980
  • Wood K 10.9; p 3.8

Next 4 sets are all of the Chewa tribe type. An uncle of my wife lived and worked for 50 years in Malawi, and he brought the first 2 of these 4 sets to the Netherlands. The actual age of these 2 sets is probably older as indicated. I have forgotten to ask and now it is too late.

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  • Malawi, by Chewa
  • ca. 1970
  • Ivory K1 7.1; p1 4.8; K2 8.7; p2 6.0
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  • Malawi, by Chewa
  • 1970
  • Wood K 8.8; p 3.8
  • Board 35.0×35.0
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  • Malawi, by Chewa
  • 1970
  • Wood K 10.9; p 5.2-5.6
  • Board 37.1×37.2
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  • Malawi, by Chewa
  • 1980
  • Ivory + African blackwood K 7.1; p 4.0
  • Board 32.2×32.1

Mali was the country where my brother in law and his wife did community work until 1988. They brought, at the Centre Artinasal in Bamako, the first set you see here as a gift for me and a similar one for themselves.

According Plain/III 2021 are these sets made in Sierra Leone by the Mende tribe. The queen has the characteristic high hair dress of the Creole women, a minority in Sierra Leone.

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  • Mali, Bamako, Centre Artisanal
  • 1988
  • Paduk + ebony K 11.4; p 6.0

Mali. This cast bronze set has been made with the so called "cire-perdue" method from ship-generated waste. According Munger/I 1996 are these sets stimulated by the colourful iron Burkina Faso sets. The antelope is quite like the famous wooden figures with long graceful horns carved by the Bambara, a tribe in Mali. The itinerant Hausa does trade the sets, which is the reason that not always a precise origin can be determined. I have a similar set listed at the Burkina Faso page.

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  • Mali
  • 1997
  • Bronze K 7.1; R 9.7; p 4.9
  • Note that a similar set can be found at Burkina Faso page

Mozambique. The Makonde are an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique. They are well known to their carvings of traditional household objects, figures and masks. Their chess sets are very recognizable with the headdress King, Queen and Bishops have, the giraffe as Knight and the traditional hut as Rook. Sets can be heads only, bustes or whole bodies. Animals like apes or birds are loved themes as well.

This set is believed to be from Mozambique. Some say that the sets from Mozambique are better carved as sets from Tanzania. At least do they have more decoration. I'm not that convinced about that theory. See Tanzania page.

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  • Mozambique, by Makonde
  • 20th century
  • ?? + African blackwood Kw 15.0; Kz 16.0; p 10.9-11.6


Tanzania. The Makonde are an ethnic group in south-east Tanzania and northern Mozambique. They are well known to their carvings of traditional household objects, figures and masks. Their chess sets are very recognizable with the headdress King, Queen and Bishops have, the giraffe as Knight and the traditional hut as Rook. Sets are mostly heads only, but busts or whole bodies exist as well. Well known are sets where the pawns are pipe smoking or drumming tribesmen, but such are not in my collection. Other beloved themes are birds and apes.

The dark woods used are ebony or Grenadill, which is also called M'pingo (in Tanzania) or African blackwood (scientific name: Dalbergia melanoxylon). The latter is even heavier as ebony and is often confused with it. One light-coloured wood used, as is told to me, could be Quercus ilex. But that is a wood growing in South-Europe and not in Africa as far as I know. So I doubt that the info about that kind of wood is correct. Sometimes the light-coloured pieces are said made of African whitewood (scientific name: Triplochiton scleroxylon), but that is a wood from Western Africa. So I doubt that as well.

If you have a set then it is hard to know the origin. For some sets here I made a best guess. Some say that the sets from Mozambique are better carved as sets from Tanzania. At least do they have more decoration. I'm not that convinced about that theory. See Mozambique page.

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  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1960-1980
  • Wood K 7.2; p 5.2
  • Cassette 32.2×4-.6×3.2
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  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1970
  • Ivory + African blackwood K 9.4; p 6.2
  • Board 43.7×38.9
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  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1970
  • Wood K 7.2+7.9; p 5.1-5.6
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  • Tanzania, Dar-es-Salaam, by Makonde
  • 1973
  • Wood K 10.7; p 7.8
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Note the reversed headdress of King and Bishop!

  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1975
  • Quercus ilex? + ebony K 8.1; p 5.6

Tanzania. Some sets with birds ans ape motives. The 1st set has dark Queen, Bishop and one pawn in African blackwood, all other dark pieces in ebony.

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  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1980
  • Quercus ilex? + ebony/African blackwood K 6.2; p 4.9
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  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1980
  • Quercus ilex? + ebony K 8.4; p 4.1
  • Board Ø 35.5
  • Tanzania, by Makonde
  • 1980
  • Quercus ilex? + ebony K 6.2; p 3.9

Zimbabwe sets from soapstone are less common than the kisii stone (which is a soft kind of soapstone) ones from Kenya. Striking at these sets from Zimbabwe is that the Knight is also a human figure.

I do not know much of the first 2 sets. Actually they let me think of the sets from Malawi. The unpainted 1st set has very subtle colour differences which are hard to see, even at the picture.

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  • Zimbabwe
  • 1989
  • Soapstone K 10.1; p 3.9
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  • Zimbabwe
  • Late 20th century
  • Soapstone K 10.8; p 4.1-4.8

Zimbabwe. Of the third set could seller not tell me age or origin, but in Munger is a similar set from Zimbabwe.

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  • Zimbabwe
  • 2000
  • Soapstone K 11.5; p 4.5

Zimbabwe. The wooden set consist of animal figures: King and Queen are lion and lioness, Bishop is rhino, Knight is water buffalo, Rook is elephant and pawn is hippo. All animals are on a conical base.

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  • Zimbabwe
  • 2008
  • Wood K 7.5; p 3.5