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A Game Of Ludo Helps Liberians Catch A Break From Ebola

Residents of New Georgia Signboard, a small village just north of Monrovia, pass the time by playing a fast-paced board game called Ludo. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

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John W. Poole/NPR

Residents of New Georgia Signboard, a small village just north of Monrovia, pass the time by playing a fast-paced board game called Ludo.

John W. Poole/NPR

The president of Liberia is in town. She's about to launch her Ebola Must Go! Campaign in the dusty village of New Georgia Signboard.

But three residents sitting on chairs that are arranged in the middle of a red dirt walk not far from the ceremony are are oblivious to the hubbub. They're busy playing the fast-moving board game of Ludo.

With a sharp flick of her wrist and snap of her fingers, 29-year-old Mercy Boimah throws two tiny white die onto the brightly colored board. She cackles with joy over what turns out to be an excellent roll. She rolls a three and a six – and flips her green plastic disc down the game track toward her home column. Six means a bonus roll and, with that uniquely stylized wrist flick, she takes another roll of the die. Her plastic discs — they're referred to as "seeds" — move closer to victory.

Boimah says they've been playing Ludo a lot these days in New Georgia Signboard, a community that sits a few miles north of the capital, Monrovia, off a rutted dirt road that dwindles to a foot path at the village edge. New Georgia Signboard has no electricity or running water and rarely gets the kind of attention the president's visit brought.

Her opponents, 42-year-old Sophia Johnson and 29-year-old Hilary Obarbali rib her good-naturedly.

"Because of Ebola, right now I'm not doing any regular job," she said. "So I stay home. This keeps me busy."

Boimah wants to be a geologist. But Ebola put an end to her internship at The Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.

She says she plays Ludo every day. Sometimes several times a day.

"I'm the champion," she laughs.

Not so, says Obarbali, half-smiling.

"I'm the champion!" crows the unemployed Obarbali. He'd worked as a shipping clerk at Monrovia Freeport, the main harbor, until his boss died two years ago. That put him out of a job.

He's had no luck finding another job since then, and Ebola has made opportunities even more scarce. Liberia's economy was wrecked by 14 years of civil war and officials say the country seemed to be just about to find its feet when Ebola hit in March. The already high unemployment rate climbed even higher. With nothing to do, Obarbali, Johnson and Boimah say Ludo is taking up the slack.

Ludo — which is pronounced LOO-doo in Liberia — is a game for two to four players. Each player is assigned a color and has four matching seeds. According to the roll of the dice, they race the discs around the board track and when they get back to home, they zoom up to the finishing square. The first to get all of his or her seeds to the square wins. If your seed lands on another player's seed, you bump it back to the start. The game is a lot like Parcheesi or Sorry.

Check-Up looks like a cross between checkers and the British game draughts. There's a square checkerboard, black and red pieces, diagonal jumps and an unusual West African addition — the flicking of fingers on board squares. John W. Poole/NPR hide caption

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John W. Poole/NPR

Check-Up looks like a cross between checkers and the British game draughts. There's a square checkerboard, black and red pieces, diagonal jumps and an unusual West African addition — the flicking of fingers on board squares.

John W. Poole/NPR

On this particular game board, the different colored quadrants display pictures of West African soccer stars. Green is Ghana's team captain Asamoah Gyan. Red is represented by two Nigerian players, John Mikel Obi and Joseph Yobo. Blue is Seydou Keita of Mali. Jonathan Pitroipa is Burkina Faso's star footballer in the yellow quadrant.

Elsewhere in this community of low one- and two-room concrete buildings, small groups similarly crowd around board games. A couple of hundred yards down the footpath, another group of four is playing a religious-themed Ludo board, with the four quadrants illustrated by four different-colored pictures of Christ.

And two guys sit across from each other under the shade of a large mango tree playing a fast-moving game they call Check-Up. It looks like a cross between American checkers and the British board game draughts, involving a square checkerboard, opposing black and red pieces, diagonal jumping moves and an unusual and mysterious addition — the flicking of fingers on board squares.

Isaac Gambleh says he used to work for a Lebanese contractor but his boss left the country when the Ebola epidemic surged. He's playing against Vasco Nimely and seems to be winning.

"It's something to do," says Gambleh.

And a welcome distraction from the Ebola outbreak. As convoys of vehicles arrive for the day's event, carrying Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the country's U.S. ambassador and senior representatives from major aid groups battling Ebola, the rival players are flicking and chortling over a Ludo board.