The content and opinions found on this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect any position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

July 23, 2010


Lately I've developed an obsession with Scrabble. On weekdays, I generally play at least one game a day with my fellow teachers. Despite English being their second or third language, a few of them are quite good at it. I've picked up a few strategies from our games: look for two-letter word connectors like XU and SH, save high-scoring tiles until you can triple their value, and always sit to the left of Sam Peter, the head of the math department. He tends to open up Triple Word Scores by accident. I can safely say that I'm a much more competitive player now than I was on those frosty Tuesday nights in college, when my roommate Kort and I would crack open a bottle of Jim Beam in the library, slam tiles down, and yell at each other until more studious students would glare at us.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'm encouraged to (I sincerely apologize for the following mouthful of hippie-speak) initiate secondary projects that promote sustainable development at the grassroots level. All the Scrabble I've been playing gave me an idea for a secondary project: create a school Scrabble club! Scrabble is an excellent game on so many levels. Besides being extremely enjoyable to play, it expands English vocabulary, passively forces players to do mental arithmetic, and develops capacity for strategic thought.

I think this is a perfect project for several reasons:
  • The average first-year Ugandan secondary school student has just enough English vocabulary to be able to play the game. Scrabble would help them to learn new words.
  • Ugandans are bad at spelling. This is a generalization, but an accurate one. Scrabble teaches correct orthography. 
  • Youth and children here are desperate for mental stimulation and entertainment. Books and games are practically nowhere to be seen.
  • Scrabble boards and tiles can be made from local materials. My parents suggested pasting printed letters on cut up pieces of linoleum to make tiles. But my requests for linoleum at the hardware stores in Hoima, even the Indian ones, where met with blank stares. If you have other ideas for materials, let me know!
  • Students overuse calculators, which makes them poor at mental math and estimation. This becomes a problem when they have to manage personal finances as adults. By constantly optimizing play values, thinking about the odds of picking certain letters from the bag, and adding up scores manually, they develop these skills.
  • Most importantly, this project, like any successful secondary project, stems from the desires of the community it would help. Students want to play Scrabble. One of them literally walked into the room while I was writing that last sentence to ask if he could borrow my travel edition of the game.
          Last weekend I was playing against two of my students when an idea for a spin-off project occured to me. The game had been a slaughter; my final score was larger than theirs combined, and well into the 300s. This kind of thing tends to happen when an experienced player who speaks English as his mother tongue goes head-to-head with newbies who know English as a second or third language. After the game, one of the students said to me, "But masta, if we played in Runyoro, we could not fail to beat you." That got me thinking. Why not make a Runyoro Scrabble game?

          Why not, indeed? I went online that very night to research foreign language versions of Scrabble. As it turns out, all of them use a board identical to the one used in the English version. The difference is in the tiles: the letter distribution and tile values are adjusted to reflect how frequently each letter appears in everyday writing. When architect Alfred Mosher Butts designed Criss-Crosswords (the predecessor to Scrabble) in 1938, he created a set of tiles based on a frequency analysis of letters in English text. The man literally sat down and counted, by hand, the number of A's, B's, etc. printed in an entire issue of The New York Times. While I applaud Butts for doing this—his labor resulted in my favorite board game—I was not about to sit down and mindlessly tally letters for 8 hours. Counting letters is not a man's job. It's not a woman or child's job, either. It's a computer's job.

          So, shaking the rust off my programming skills, I set to work writing a Python script to count how often each letter appears in a block of text, then return a list of the individual letter counts and frequency percentages. The end result is a program that determines how many Scrabble tiles should be made for each letter in a particular language. You can even change the alphabet used to include or exclude certain letters. For example, I would omit X and V when analyzing Runyoro text, because those letters are only in found loanwords. What I plan to do is amass a bunch of text from Runyoro language websites, feed it through the program, and create a tile set based on its output. The only problem is that I can't find websites in Runyoro! Only about a million people speak Runyoro and most don't use the Internet, let alone computers, so there are very few Runyoro sites. At least my program works, though: running the Wikipedia entry for Scrabble through it generates a letter distribution that is over 99% identical to the English language Scrabble tile distribution.

          One of the major obstacles in the way of making a playable Runyoro Scrabble game is defining which words actually are Runyoro words. Uganda is a linguistically heterogeneous country; over 30 languages are spoken natively here, and each tribe has its own language. A 20-minute taxi ride can sometimes carry you across a tribal border, and suddenly nobody speaks your language anymore. I noticed this happen when I visited some friends in eastern Uganda last month: Stacey and Tony live in Bukedea, where a Nilotic language called Ateso is spoken. But Mbale, a large town nearby, is primarily composed of Bagisu/Bamasaaba, who speak Lugisu/Lumasaaba, a Bantu language (an enormous language family that includes Runyoro/Rutooro, KiSwahili, Luganda, and even a South African language, Xhosa). Tony was able to communicate just fine with the locals in Bukedea. Once we headed into Mbale, however, even greetings proved difficult, and we both resorted to English (which most people know to some degree, especially in urban centers). Luckily, we met up with two other PCV friends, Arwen and Alyssa, who both live near Mbale and studied Lumasaaba in training.

          With such a high density of languages, a lot of overlap and word-stealing goes down. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's unavoidable. I would not be surprised at all if somebody in my village came up to me and said: Hello, ssebo. Oli sawa sawa? That simple greeting is in four languages! Hello is English of course, ssebo is Luganda for "sir", oli means "you are" in Runyoro, and sawa sawa1 is just the KiSwahili word for "fine" (sawa) repeated: "Hello, sir. You are fine fine?" People here switch languages mid-sentence, whenever one language lacks a word with the appropriate shade of meaning that happens to be present in the other's vocabulary. As a result, people forget which words belong to which language. President Yoweri Museveni pointed this out in the speech he gave at the empango (coronation anniversary celebration) for the Omukama (King) of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom, Solomon Gafabusa Iguru:2

          Do you know that in Runyankore, Luganda, Rukiga, Lusoga and other languages we use the word kuyamba(to help)? [But] you Banyoro and Batooro say kukonyera: that is Acholi [language]! The Acholi say kony. Why is your word for kuyamba different? We are one people [linguistically]. You ask Rwot Acana (of Acholi), he is here. What we call okuyamba, the Acholi call it kony; this Kony who has been butchering people.3 You Banyoro and Batooro just added on that Bantu ’ku’, kukonyera; but the root word is ‘kony’. Now, some people waste time proving how they are different. [They say]: “We are Baganda, we are Banyoro, we are Banyankore, boboooboo...! Now, what’s that? You spend all your time showing how Ugandans are different. We want to unite people; you are [busy] dividing them up.
          I highly encourage you to read the rest of this speech. Museveni justifies the coexistence of Uganda's semi-ceremonial tribal kingdoms with the country's centralized democracy. It's federalism turned on its ear, and an interesting peek at how Uganda [dis]functions. But that's a discussion for another post, ideally one that is titled something other than "Scrabble". My point with all this talk about languages is that without a proper Runyoro dictionary, it will be hard to decide which words are legal in Runyoro Scrabble, since the language itself is mingled (to use a popular Ugandan English word) with words from several others.

          Whatever the text equivalent of "talking someone's ear off" ("writing someone's eyes out"?) is, I think I've done it here. Rest your eyes, dear reader. Then write me some comments!

          1 Sawa sawa by itself is a perfectly acceptable informal greeting where I live. It's my favorite greeting, and I always try to say it as smarmily as possible.
          2 I attended empango and met the King in person, in front of his palace, which I would describe more accurately as a modest mansion. He introduced me to his brother and thanked me for teaching the kingdom's children. I got there too late to meet the President, though; he had already helicoptered it back to Kampala by the time I arrived. After meeting the King, I did the traditional empango dance with some Banyoro. It was an endless, repetitive combination of kicking and hand gestures, done in a circle, in unison. As usual, children were laughing at me.

          The King and I.

          3 Joseph Kony is head of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a violent Christian terrorist group that the Ugandan military has forced out of Uganda and into neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Central African Republic. The LRA is rumored to use child soldiers and is responsible for thousands of rapes, murders, and cases of human flesh mutilation (including cutting off the lips of northern Ugandans) since it began fighting in the mid-1980s. Kony himself is on Forbes' list of the World's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives. His company on that list? Osama Bin Laden.


          1. For an indepth look at Kony and the LRA, see the book, First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army.

          2. hahaha, you're SO funny Lukas. What are you doing these days? That was a super long post... don't tell me you're BORED in UGANDA! That is where you are, correct? Did you really meet the King? Is the King a person or 3 people? Hmm. Not that you could know. I moved to the Philippines!!! Do you know where that is? Do you want a postcard? I always send postcards! I've sent a postcard to Sam, to Ryan Smith, to Nick... my postcards get around! Do you want a postcard? You never answer the phone! I don't know the magic word/phrase, but if it involves "please" I will Punch you and if it doesn't, I'm guessing it's along these lines. I miss you!! :)

          3. Nick N. (other nick)July 24, 2010 at 5:58 PM

            Hey Marlea, people can be bored in other countries. Countries are often quite dull given the right circumstances. Are the "Phillies" exciting? I would ask for a postcard, but apparently Korea has the postal service of an impoverished nation and cannot deliver my mail properly.

            Lukas, good solution with the program, I can't remember that stuff at all. You should invent a new word game for Uganda. Scrabble is too "set collect-y". Maybe something that doesn't rely on the word's "language" would fit Uganda better. (something like maybe)

            In the meantime, scrabble is super accessible and pretty cheap by board-game standards, so it's a good choice. Much luck.

          4. Peter - Your book looks excellent. I'm considering buying the Kindle version.

            Marlea - Nick's right, people do get bored in foreign countries. But this blog is a labor of love, not something to idly pass time with. That's awesome that you moved to the Philippines! I met a PCV a few months back who extended his service to Uganda after completing two years there; it sounded like nothing short of paradise. How's it treating you? And yes, I would LOVE a postcard. I tape every one I get to my wall. I'll send you one too :-)

            Nick - I've seen Upwords before but never gotten a chance to play it, though I imagine it's fun. The problem with playing it here is (a) I'm 90% sure there's not a single copy for sale in Uganda, (b) it could be imported, but at significant shipping expense (which I can't afford on a $260/month salary), and (c) I see actually making a game from local materials as an integral part of the project for both sustainability reasons and because I think it would show students that they can actually create things themselves. Upwords is hard to make because of the stackability of the tiles. You may be right about choosing something other than a language game, though. Other PCVs are starting chess clubs, for example. Scrabble is what gets me excited though, so I'll probably stick with it. Did you get my card in the mail by the way, or it get caught in the gears of Posta Uganda?

          5. Lukas- fascinating post. Great idea to create a version of scrabble for the locals! I foresee some serious competition to get one of your home-made games!
            Just got back from a camping/hiking/whitewater rafting trip with Chris, Amelia and Irena. We went to the Daniel Boone National forest in Kentucky. Beautiful place...but HOT. We were talking about you and all the neat experiences you are having. And Irena was remembering the rhino rocket!

          6. I am Richard, I believe I am a very very good scrabble player (literally). So, why do you not link up on facebook at

            to join up with other scrabble players in Uganda. We have a national association which administers the competitive game in the country. Come meet players with international rankings. ...this blog very very interesting!