To compete in the Francophone World Scrabble Championship, 32-year-old Elisee Poka spent five days in a bus traversing Africa's potholed roads. His competitors from France arrived by plane.
To prepare for the game, he carried a diary in his satchel, spending every spare moment committing words to memory. His French competitors used computers to spit out anagrams, the game's key building block.
But in spite of all their advantages, France lost to an African player for the third year in a row this week in the one-on-one duel at the Francophone World Scrabble Championship.
"We have far less means than the French players," says Poka, who as a child in Ivory Coast made his own Scrabble set out of wood because he couldn't afford a store-bought one. "But we keep on beating them."
There is more than a little irony in the string of wins given that French is the language of West Africa's colonizers. With literacy rates as low as 30 percent in Guinea and 40 percent in Senegal, many Africans still speak local dialects and know only a smattering of French, the language of the elite.
"French is not my mother tongue. I taught myself French when I was in my teens," said Senegalese player Amar Diokh, 53, who clinched the one-on-one title from a Frenchman last year. "So I can't help but feel enormous pride to be able to beat the French in their own language."
An official sport
Whereas in France the game is viewed as a hobby, in several African countries Scrabble has been elevated to the status of an official sport. Mali's Ministry of Sports paid for 10 players to fly to the competition that ended here Friday. Senegal's Minister of Sports attended the closing ceremonies of this year's championship and made a declaration calling the tournament one of the year's most important sports events.
Top Scrabble players are celebrities in Senegal and have been able to parlay their success at word combinations into political careers, like former doubles champion Arona Gaye, now an adviser on sports to Senegal.
The game's popularity has meant that even French players have become household names here, like Antonin Michel, a multiple champion from Nancy, France, who has appeared on Senegalese TV. "I get a lot more respect here than I do in France," he said.
The tournament held in Dakar, Senegal's capital, drew more than 500 participants from around 20 French-speaking countries. More than half the countries represented are African. Players are divided by age and play in four major categories — one-on-one, pair-on-pair, speed Scrabble and an open competition in which a giant board is projected on a screen and all the contestants play with the same letters.
Although the French-language championship is now in its 37th year, it was not until 2000 that an African player grabbed one of the top honors. When Gaye and his Senegalese partner won the doubles tournament in Paris, the French were shocked — and a tad embarrassed.
"Their victory made an enormous amount of noise," says Michel.
Since then, Senegal hasn't looked back and last year, Senegalese players grabbed three of the top four trophies at the World Championship in Quebec.
No African player has yet won the grand champion title, which is based on scores in the four different competitions. But this year's No. 3 overall player is from Congo. Organizers say it won't be long before a player from the continent breaks the word ceiling.
The success of the African players has sharpened the skills of the French, said one of the tournament's referees, Pierre Salvati, a Scrabble player from Toulouse.
"For many years, the French had a lock on the competition," he said. "So the players started to fall asleep. Now that they're being beaten by the Africans and that motivates us to make sure we keep winning."
Another sign of Africa's growing influence is the number of African words that have been accepted into the official Francophone Scrabble dictionary. The most recent edition has at least 20 African words, most in Wolof, Senegal's main dialect. They include 'yet,' a kind of shellfish found off Senegal's coast and 'mbalax,' the style of music made famous by Grammy winner Youssou N'Dour, Senegal's most famous singer.
Joseph Kouassi, 27, of Ivory Coast, said he was too poor to be able to afford his own boardgame and so he made his first Scrabble set using discarded kitchen tiles. He said every time he gets to play an African word in a Scrabble competition he feels a sense of pride.
"I feel joy to know that not only have I mastered French — a language that isn't mine — but that our African words are helping enrich the French language," he said.