Chess: Sharing Knowledge Across Cultures

Chess:  Sharing Knowledge Across Cultures


Dewain Barber

The cool breeze gently flowed across the Serengeti Plains as I sat in the chair and looked out upon the profusion of wildlife.  My wife, Susan, and I had come to fulfill a dream we have had since we started teaching school in 1968.  Our goal, a mighty one indeed, was to travel to the far reaches of the planet and meet as many cultures and see as many places as we could.  Both of us were history teachers and we believed that teaching history means you travel.

Our trip took us by plane from the Los Angeles area to Kilimanjaro, a town in northern Tanzania, where we headed out for the “Great Migration”.  Travel time from my home to the starting point of our safari was 26 hours. Time zone changes were telling my brain, “It is 8 AM in L.A., but it is 8 PM here!  Go to bed!!”  With all of the changes, we were still excited to greet the morning (ahhh, evening maybe) of the new day.

When we got up the next morning, I turned to Susan and said the words we have shared for over 40 years, “The adventure continues.”  As we were driving to the airport for our first small plane experience, I glanced down at my duffle bag (suitcase).  It was of generous size, but we were informed that there was a weight restriction on the small aircraft of 33 pounds of luggage per passenger.  All of the flying between safari camps would be in small planes that held no more than 12 passengers.  In my bag were two triple-weighted Ultimate Chessplayer sets with board and bag as well as 35 Golden Pawn key chains.  Each set, board and bag weighed 4 pounds which took a total of 8 pounds out of my allotted 33 pounds.  This cut down greatly the amount of clothing I could take and the amount of souvenirs I could buy.  I had decided to donate these sets to one of the camps and a school in Maasai land, an area that stretches from northern Tanzania (Serengeti) across the border into southern Kenya (Masai Mara).  As you have noted there are different spellings for the Maasai people and their land.  We quickly learned two words in Swahili which carried us through the trip:  Jambo which means hello and Asante sana which means thank you.  Everywhere we went, we greeted people by using these words.  A friend of mine once said, “If everyone were to learn 10 words of kindness in every language of the world, we would certainly be better off.”

Upon our arrival in Klein’s camp, I met up with our guide/driver, Rabin, and Jackson, a Maasai game tracker who would ride with us in a chair placed on the front of the four-wheel drive vehicle and spot the wildlife.  We saw leopards, cheetahs, elephants, wildebeests, zebras, vultures, hyenas, jackals, giraffe, antelope, crocodiles and the real prize, several prides of lions.  The “Great Migration” involved zebras, wildebeests and antelope moving from northern Tanzania over the border into southern Kenya.  The estimate of the movement of animals to new grazing land is 1.5 million.

Rabin and Jackson were considered some of the best in finding game to view which started me thinking.  How was chess related to their highly developed skills?  Day after day we drove over very rough land, and when we stopped, we were able to view the animals we had come to see.  So I asked Rabin, “How is it possible you are able to find the animals of this great land since they are moving from place to place, crossing rivers and walking in tall grass?”  He replied, “What you need to do is look for the patterns that the land presents and find that which does not fit or looks unusual.”  Then, I looked out into the plains and it made sense.  Chess presents patterns and so does the Serengeti.

That evening I asked Tiffany, the gracious and helpful manager of Klein’s camp in the Serengeti if I could share a chess lesson with one of the staff.  I knew it was an unusual request, but when I travel I like to make chess part of my trip.  I had arranged in advance with Paul, our tour organizer, to see if this was possible.  So the scene was set:  The traveler who was visiting Tanzania for the first time and Head Tracker, Karipoi, a Maasai warrior, who lives in the nearby Ololosokwan community and was on staff at the camp would play chess.  The lesson focused on the basics of chess and the real challenge was relating to a person from a very different background and culture.  I found that discussing the topic of patterns in his job with the patterns in chess helped.  At the conclusion, I presented him with a gift, a Golden Pawn.  I explained, “This Golden Pawn key chain I give to you represents what most often happens in chess at the beginning of the game.  A pawn is moved forward just as I move forward on my first trip to Tanzania.”  He graciously accepted my special gift, and I thanked him for taking the time to learn about a game I have shared with thousands of people.


                          Karipoi, a Maasai warrior, learning to play chess with Dewain Barber.



I also gave Rabin and Jackson a Golden Pawn and expressed my appreciation for their service to their country.  Rabin later asked for a chess lesson and promised he would learn more about the game in the future.  The tour company, &Beyond, in Tanzania wrote an interesting phrase about this event.  They said that this was an example of “Sharing Knowledge Across Cultures.”  I have chosen as the theme for the 2011 Denker Tournament of High School Champions and the Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions the following:  “Chess:  Sharing Knowledge Across Cultures.”  If you look at the backgrounds of the players of these two National Invitational events you will see that many cultures are represented.  As I moved on to the Mara Plains, “the adventure continued.”

As we flew to the Mara Plains camp located in Kenya, I thought that my chess experience on this trip was over.  Upon arriving at this final camp my expectations were completely focused on the wildlife of East Africa.  We were greeted by Richard Pye, a native Kenyan, former tracker, and guide who is now manager of the Mara Plains camp located on the wildlife rich Olare Orok Conservancy and Lorna, a member of the staff who is originally from Scotland.  Saving the animals from poachers and adding more land that protected the animals and ensuring the local Masai community were the beneficiaries was a big priority.  I had occasion to ask my usual question, “Does anyone at the camp play chess?”  To my surprise, both Richard and Lorna played each other as time permitted.  Richard asked if I would like a game and I was pleased to accept.  A table was brought out in front of the main meeting area and there on the Masai Mara, with the sun setting, we played a game.  Afterwards I shared a few game improvement ideas with him, and he reflected and said, “It is better to compete over a game, than to compete for game!”  May your next game of chess be an opportunity to share knowledge across cultures.