Some African Variants of Bucca, Bucca

Paul Brewster

"Notes", Classical Journal, 39, 1944, 293-296

[Page 293] In my recent article "A Roman Game and Its Survival on Four Continents',' (Classical Philology XXXVIII [1943], 134-137) I gave descriptions and texts of the game as played in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. It was not until something like a month after the publication of that paper that I was reminded of some Afrikaans texts in my files. A letter from Lt. Murray Fowler, USNR, on duty with the Fourth Fleet, provided the reminder:

One of the few things in English that I manage to read is Classical Philology.I thought you might like to know that "Buck, Buck" is played in South Africa. We used to play it as boys in the South African College School. As I remember it, we used to say in Dutch

Bock, Bock, staan stijf,
Hoeveel vingers ...?

... I last played the game in 1918.

In a letter of April 17, 1940, Professor I. Schapera, of the School of African Studies, University of Cape Town, wrote that no South African tribes knew the game, though they have many games of the same general type. He added, however, that it was widely played by white children in South Africa and that he himself often took part in the game there as a boy. His description of the manner of playing runs as follows:

As far as I can remember, it is essentially a boys' game, played by two opposing teams, of roughly equal numbers, there being no fixed number of players. It is known under the name of "Bok, bok, staan styf" (Afrikaans for "Buck, buck, stand fast"). One boy stands with his back to a wall or tree. [Page 294] Another faces him, bending over until his face rests in the clasped hands of the first. Still another, on the same side, bends over behind him in the same way, resting his head on the buttocks of the first boy in the line, and a third and fourth, or whatever the number may be, line up behind, also bending over. The boys on the other side then jump onto the backs of those bending over; and one of those jumping, who has been chosen for the purpose, holds up one or more fingers, and says:

Bok, bok, staan styf,
hoeveel vingers op jou lyf?
(Buck, buck stand fast; how many fingers on your body?)

One of the boys bending down has to guess; if he guesses correctly, the two sides change positions; if he does not, the same side remains bending until it has succeeded in guessing the correct number.1

Another description comes from Mr. H .J. van Zyl, a teacher in the Lemana Training Institution, a Swiss mission in South Africa.2

The game is only played by boys because of the fact that it is too rough for girls to participate in. Any number of boys can take part at a time, though more than 20 (which means 10 on a side) would be too many and would only cause disorder. When the boys decide to play bok-bok, two leaders are chosen, A and B. A hides a stone in one of his hands and holds both clenched hands out to B, who points at one of the hands, hoping that he will point to the one containing the stone. If he succeeds, he gets first chance to pick for his team from the boys available. The two leaders then carry on to pick in turn until all the boys belong to the one or the other team. The fact that it sometimes so happens that one team has one more man does not cause much dissatisfaction, since only one man does not make such a great difference. As before, the stone is hidden by one of the leaders to decide which team has to bow first. When this is decided, the team which has to bow chooses a kussing (cushion). The kussing stands firmly against a wall, tree, pillar, or any other fixed object. All the rest of the team then bow in the following way: No.1 presses his shoulder firmly onto one thigh of the kussing, with his arms round the former's legs (upper parts). No.2 bows in the same way, holding his shoulder against the back part of No. l's thigh (right or left) and with his arms also firmly clasped round No.1's legs. It is just as common to see the boys following No.1 [Page 295] hold their heads between the legs of the one in front of them so that each shoulder presses against a thigh. Like this they can stand much firmer and the head is completely out of danger (which will become clear as we go on). In this way all the boys of the team bow in a line, hanging on to one another. A team is usually arranged so that the stronger men are just there in the line where the most weight is going to be because, as we shall see, the others are going to jump onto them.

The members of the other team stand about 15 to 20 yards away from the last boy of those who bow. They choose their swiftest member to run and jump first. This first one runs toward the line, presses with both bands on the back of the rear boy, and at the same time flies as far along the line as possible and comes down with a bang on the back of one of his opponents. He must take much care not to let his feet touch the ground (if this happens, it becomes his team's time to bow down). All the others follow the first boy. Everyone tries to jump as far as possible and so it sometimes happens that there are 3 or 4 boys on the back of a single one of the others. The following rules are to be observed:

  1. Those all top are not to touch the ground with any part of the body, accidentally or otherwise.
  2. They are not to move. They must be perfectly still where they landed and no shifting into a better position is allowed.
  3. Those bearing the burden must not subside, because if this is the cause of the others' touching the ground it will not count against the latter.

When all are on, the one who jumped first and who consequently is in front holds out any number of fingers3 and asks:

Bok-bok staan styf
hoeveel vingers op jou lyf?

The only opponent who sees the upheld fingers is the kussing, who is the witness and must see that there is no cheating. The front one of those bowing answers the question, guessing the number. If he gives the right answer, his team exchanges places with the other; if not, the game continues until the light number is given.

Still another form of the game was described by Dr. H. Vedder, of Okahandja, S.W. A., in 1939. After having questioned forty-two natives of the Herero, Nama (Hottentot), Bergdama, and Ovambo (Ovandonga and Ovakuanjama) tribes, Dr. Vedder came to the [Page 296] conclusion that the game is unknown in Southwest Africa.4 However, he had seen it played in Africa by a German mother with her four children. Dr. Vedder considers it hardly likely that she learned it in Southwest Africa, but suggests that she may have become acquainted with it in Germany during a brief stay there when she was eighteen. I give the description in his own words:

Das Fraeulein pflegte sich auf ainen niedrigen Stuhl zu setzen. Dann traten die vier Kinder, die sie zu betreuen hatten, um sie herum. Sie fing dann ohne eine besondere Ordnung innezuhalten, z.B. bei der 6 jaehrigen Anna an, legte sie ueber ihre Knie, sodass weder Fuesse noch Haende den Boden beruehrten und das Gesicht nach unten gekehrt war, das Kind also nicht sehen konnte, was oberhalb des Rueckens vor sich ging. (Die Augen wurden nicht verbunden, es gehoerte aber zur Spielregel, dass das Kind nichts sehen durfte.) Dann stiess das Fraeulein die kleine Anna mit den Ellenbogen bei gekruemmten Armen mehrfach stampfend auf den Ruecken, dann wurde der Ruecken mehrfach mit beiden Faeusten geschlagen, dann schlicsslich mit den fiachen Haenden. Waehrend dieser Prozedur wurde ein Reim gesungen, in den der Name des Kindes eingesetzt werden musste, etwa so:

"Kommt, wir wollen Anna fragen!
Anna soll die Wahrheit sagen.
Wenn sie luegt, wird sie geschlagen.
Wieviel Finger sind das?"

Bei dieser Frage nach der Anzahl der ausgestreckten Finger hoerten die Stoesse mit Ellenbogen und Faeusten auf. Wurde die Fingerzahl richtig geraten, so kam das folgende der sich herandraengenden Kinder an die Reihe, ganz nach frcier Wahl des Fraeuleins, und wurde ueber die Knie gelegt. Wurde aber die Frage nicht richtig beantwortet, so fing die Prozedur mit Ellenbogen, Faeusten, und flachen Haenden von vorn an, und der Reim wurde abermals gcsungcn. Den Schluss bildete wieder die Frage: "Wieviel Finger sind das?"

[English Translation] The girl used to ... Then came the four children to care for, had around them.They then began without a specific order to stop, ... on to the 6 year old Anna, she laid over her knees, so that neither hands nor feet touched the ground and the face was turned down, the child could not see what was above the ridge in front of him. (The eyes were not connected, it belonged to but the game rule that the child could not see anything.) Then the young lady, little Anna joined the elbow with curved arms repeatedly stamping on the ridge, then, the standing repeatedly beaten with fists, then ... with the fiat Hands. During this procedure was sung a rhyme, in the name of the child had to be used, like so:

"Come, let us ask Anna!
Anna is telling the truth.
If she lies, she is beaten.
How many fingers are? "

This question on the number of outstretched fingers listened to the collisions with elbows and fists. If the finger number are correct, the following are crowding the children's turn, all the way ... choice of the lady, and was placed over the knee. But if the question is not answered correctly, then began the procedure with elbows, fists and flat hands was from the beginning on, and the rhyme ... again. The conclusion was again the question: "How many fingers are?"


  1. Professor Schapera believes that the game was introduced into the country from Holland. South Africa was first settled by the Dutch, in 1652, and conquered by the British in 1806.
  2. Mr. van Zyl is the author of an interesting and important article, "Some of the Commonest Games Played by the Sotho People of the Northern Transvaal," which was published in the December, 1939 number of Bantu Studies.
  3. Sometimes the guessing is made less difficult by a mutual agreement that the fingers of only one hand are to be used.
  4. My description of "How Many Horns?" which I enclosed in the first letter to Dr. Vedder, appears to have interested the natives greatly. Lest some future investigator may find their descendants playing the game and think it indigenous, I feel that in all fairness I should quote Dr. Vedder's comment on the native reaction. (Sic aile vcrncintcn cs, falglen aber der Darstellung mit grossem Interesse und Vergnuegcn. Ieh bin uebcrzcugt, dass es in kurzer Zeit auch in Sucdwest gcspielt werden wird. [Translation] Sic aile vcrncintcn cs, but the presentation with great interest and falglen Vergnuegcn. IEH am uebcrzcugt that there will be gcspielt in a short time in Sucdwest.)

Last update August 10, 2010