Friday, June 27, 2008

Jambo and Obama

Whether he becomes president or not, Barack Obama has already secured a consequential place in U.S. history, but I won't be the first to suggest that Obama winning the White House may have a ripple effect far outside the usual confines of politics.

While all-American himself, Obama's African connections are immediate, deep and profound and it wouldn't surprise me to see American pop culture interest in Africa to see a big jump.

While Obama's ancestors come from the Luo tribe, the best-known language and cultural setting in East Africa is Swahili and it's already seeped into the popular culture a bit, including among games. The popular Jenga! dexterity game's name comes from the Swahili imperative for "Build!"

Jambo is a word of greeting in Swahili and the setting for this 2-player trading game is set in the pre-colonial days of East Africa, which seems a well-chosen theme to me. The coastal regions of East Africa have always been an area dominated by trade, sitting as it does at the boundary between cultures, geographical regions .

Most of the human characters shown in the game are rather obviously native Africans, but there are also several depicting the cultures they interacted with during this era. There's an Arabian Merchant, a "Portuguese," a "Traveling merchant" who appears to be from the Indian subcontinent and a "Wise man from afar" who is somewhere very far indeed (Japan? China?).

It's a pretty clever marrying of theme and has managed to be popular as a game while also exposing a little-known facet of history to a wider audience. Will there be more after November?

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