By Wally Langfellow
From May 22 through May 29 I traveled to Benin West Africa along with Gary Tonsager working on our project to bring baseball to the youth of this country. Our main goals are to help assemble a team of players to come and play in a Little League age tournament this August in Robbinsdale, MN and to start the process of finding a spot to build a field in Benin. This is my day by day travel log of our work and adventures:
Day one: After 24 hours straight of travel and layovers from Minneapolis through Paris we arrived in Cotonou, Benin on a rainy muggy night. As we walked off the plane (onto the tarmac no less), it’s exactly what you might expect..semi-organized chaos. We climb onto a bus that takes to you to the terminal. Probably the only reason for the bus is because the planes are too big to get any closer to the terminal, which is about the same size as the old Amtrak station in St. Paul. The airport seemed like a bus depot with a bunch of uniformed guards.
Once we were in the terminal you are asked immediately for your passport. They could care less about your picture or visa…they’re looking for a yellow medical card which shows whether or not you have the proper immunizations for Yellow Fever. My traveling partner Gary didn’t have his yellow card, and thus started the beginning of a long night at the Cotonou airport. He was directed into a separate office where they collected his passport and began their investigation. Fortunately for Gary, he dug through his belongings and found a photo copy of his medical card and they accepted it. On we went to the customs/passport entry lines…lines that stretched almost past the first set of security and back onto the tarmac. So we waited…and waited…and waited some more. Finally after about 45 minutes in line (just one person working the customs booth), we made it to the baggage area, and another long wait. Bags for 300 people on the only Air France flight of the day came about 30-to-40 at a time…We had five bags between us…each of us with a personal bag and one or two bags of used baseball equipment. Three of the bags came down the shoot fairly quickly. The two others didn’t, and naturally one of them was my personal belongings. They never arrived that night. We had to wait for almost two hours ’til all passengers got their bags…still nothing. We were told, no more bags tonight. So, the porter who we flagged down and waited so patiently, brought us to the claims desk where another 15 minutes later we had paperwork for the lost bags. After one more screening and metal detector, we finally were on our way out. Our ride wouldn’t possibly be there…not two and a half hours after we were supposed to be picked up. But then it happened….we walked out into the night and there was not one, but 15 friends and family of Baseball in Benin people waiting to greet us. It was heartwarming after 26 hours straight of planes, airports and lost luggage. We then climbed on the hotel shuttle, where on the radio was blaring Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”. A perfect ending to an exhausting day.
Day Two–The US Embassy and meeting the kids
Fernando Atannon, our man on the ground in Cotonou, had arranged for a 10am meeting Monday morning with the Public Affairs agent at the US Embassy, Christopher Schirm. The Embassy is in a brand new building in an area sometimes referred to as embassy-row…not far from the airport. It was gratifying to see the red, white and blue flapping in the wind as we pulled up to the well-fortified non-descript building. After being directed through another sea of security, including turning over all belongings (cell phones, cameras, computers, bags, notepads) our enturouge made it in as Christopher came down from his office to escort us in. Benin natives run security, and most only speak French, and very little English. So you can imagine the confusion when turning over passports, phones etc…and then trying to get them back when we left. Schirm gave us the grand tour of the new facilities, which are very impressive. Among the rooms is a library, where locals come to read, use computers and learn English, every day. It’s also the spot where we gave a 45 minute TED talk about baseball to a group of about 40 18-28 year old men and woman (mostly men). It was also a group, that almost exclsivley, had never even heard of basebll. For something we had no real preparation, we actually flew through the time quickly, giving them history and lessons from America’s past time…some of which even I had forgotten until then.
While we ate lunch, the rains came and came down hard..for about an hour straight. It looked like our first practice with Fernando and the kids at a local school yard would be washed out. Fernando said no, not to worry, there will be practice and the kids will be there….and he was right. But first we had to travel into the heart of the city’s residential area so Fernando could go home and change into his coaching attire and grab a bag of equipment for practice. If his neighborhood were in the United States it would be called a ghetto. Deteriorating homes and buildings built side by side by side for miles and miles. The difference here is that the people use these buildings and homes to sell goods. You name it, you can buy it from somebody’s house/business/front porch. It’s endless…from foosball tables to bootlegged gasoline from Nigeria, to live chickens to cell phone minutes. More on that later.
Quite the scene traveling the roads in Benin…there are basically very few stop lights, stop signs or rules of the road. Not that anyone pays any attention to the ones that do exist anyway. And did I mention there are literally thousands of motorcycles on the roads?.outnumbering cars probably 5 to 1. So with the rain and the traffic we showed up about a half hour late to the school yard where the kids play and practice….no worries…about 20 kids, dressed up in Hopkins and Golden Valley Little League uniforms, and of course Baseball in Benin uniforms, were there ready to play. The kids anxiously intercept the coaches carrying the gear, and take the heavy bags themselves. The school yard at CEG Nokoue is huge….You could probably fit three to four full length football fields inside of its aging stone/brick walls, which makes it feel more like a prison than a schoolyard. The ground is basically matted down sand, a residual effect of being so close to the Atlantic Ocean, probably less than a mile away. There are literally dozens, maybe a couple hundred kids in school uniforms playing soccer or just walking around. The baseball players are thrilled to see us. They listen intently to Fernando, who generally speaks French to them, but yells “bring it in” in English, and they all come running and come to attention. At his command, they gladly open the equipment bag each grabbing a baseball glove. Moments later they are in perfectly straight lines 20 feet apart playing catch as Fernando instructs them to “warm up” in English.
Much to my surprise (and delight), the kids really know what they are doing. Their throwing form is fundamentally sound and most catch the ball without fear…which basically is a way of life in Benin. Motorcyclists drive fearlessly through the busy streets of Cotonou, a city with a population of nearly a million. Fear is not in their vocabulary. Fernando splits the kids into three groups. He has me working on ground balls with one group, while Gary does soft toss with a second group. Meanwhile Fernando has a third group hitting off of a tee. The tee-work turns quickly into live batting practice with Fernando pitching…not from behind an L-screen…but from behind a tree. Fernando says he needs a screen of some kind cause the kids (mostly 11 and 12 year olds) hit the ball too hard. He’s right again. They’re hitting line shots that have my ground ball group dodging missiles that go flying passed our heads….again no problem, no fear.
Back to the ground balls I was hitting. I’ve often heard the story about players from the Dominican Republic who make such great middle infielders because they grow up fielding grounders off of treacherously bumpy, bad fields. Let me tell you…the Dominican has nothing on Benin when it comes to bad fields. If the theory holds, there will be a Beninese infielder coming to an MLB park near you in the next 7 to 10 years, without a doubt. These 10, 11 and 12 year old (mostly barefooted) kids are fielding hard hit ground balls that take nasty hops that would make Omar Vizquel and Derek Jeter flinch. But, no fear. These kids from Benin stay in their well-learned fundamental position and snap up balls making wicked hops with designs to take out their teeth. While of course, dodging line-shots off the bats of Fernando’s batting practice group. No fear.
Fernando ends practice by setting up his defense and hitting infield and outfield balls. Great idea, except for the complication of a 50 x 50 pond of water (results of the afternoon downpour) in left field that stretches from behind the shortstop to 250 feet from home plate. So the left fielder stands just to the side of the water, until he has to chase down a ball in that direction, then splash…he and the shortstop both go splashing through the pond to pick up a batted ball. No Fear. After about 10 minutes, Fernando hands me the bat and I whack some infield and outfield balls to these incredible kids while Fernando shouts instructions. After another 10 minutes of watching this Orwellian picture play out in front of me, Fernando yells “bring it in” to the kids and practice is over. It’s been a heck of a day.
Day Three -The older kids and the Mayor
Our driver and host, Constant is to pick us up to meet with the mayor of Abomey-Calavi…a nearby local municipality that has interest in donating some land so we can build Benin’s first-ever baseball field. Fernando has submitted paperwork and proposals to Abomey-Calavi officials, including the mayor, who seem interested in our project. Unfortunately Constant has car problems. His left rear tire nearly falls off the axel on his way to pick us up for the meeting with the mayor. He’s running well over an hour late, so Fernando phones his father who races to our hotel to save the day…and when I say race, I mean it. The only drivers more skilled than the insane motorcyclists are guys like Fernando’s father. I told him (he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French) that there was still time to get him to Indiana for Sunday’s Memorial weekend celebration that involves cars dodging each other with no stop lights at high speeds. His ability to stop, anticipate and then quickly accelerate are phenomenal. Even with the speedy drive, we’re still late because of Constant’s 3-wheeled mini-van….Upon our arrival at the mayor’s office, we find out that he’s not in at the moment but should be returning soon. We dodge a bullet…and are asked to sign in, then step into a non-air conditioned waiting room with a ceiling fan, a handful of chairs, a TV that doesn’t work and a half dozen others waiting to see the mayor. So we wait. After about 10 minutes there’s a rumbling coming up the nearby steps and it’s the mayor and his entourage. A huge balding, talkative man as I peer out the door of the waiting room. Then just as quickly, he’s gone. All is quiet and we’re back to waiting. There are 7 of us in the group, including Fernando’s dad who was familiar with the mayor from previous meetings. Finally, we get the nod…we’re in. We all go racing out of the waiting room through a large wooden door into a large room that is the mayor’s office. This large imposing figure has a big smile on his face as he turns around and greets each of us individually as we sit down. He begins talking with all of us listening, but it’s all in French. Gary and I are lost, but intently trying to pick up the few words that we do understand. Finally he gathers that a couple of us might not understand and he asks something about speaking English instead of French. The others nod, and he gets it. So he begins in English by apologizing. Let’s remember, we are there to get his blessing on a land grant that we are looking for so we can build a baseball field. So in his commanding raspy voice, he tells a parable about a group of women who were looking for land and got it, but ended up not wanting the land was given to them because the land had been used previously for
something that they disagreed with…nothing outlandish or illegal…just in principle. The point of his story being that he didn’t want to go through the process of re-dedicating and giving up land that we weren’t going to use. To a person, we understood what he was saying. Between questions and conversations he is buzzed by his attendant and he pulls out a remote control that unlocks that big wooden entry door. A couple people wander in, say hello and leave. After about 15 minutes of conversation and another visitor entering after the mayor clicks the remote, the mayor gives our baseball field project his blessing. It’s a long ways from a done deal, but he’s on board.
We take the obligatory photo with our group and the mayor, commemorating the agreement and off we went. But wait, I had with me a new copy of the Minnesota Score magazine that my family publishes and it featured baseball on the cover. So I figure why not..a little momento of our appreciation from our home of Minnesota. I hand him the glossy magazine and he immediately shouts “Minnesota…I bought my car in Minnesota.” Sure enough this giant of a man, who wears big jewelry, is bald and has huge hands and features is excited to talk about Minnesota. Turns out he was there in 2014 visiting Minneapolis where he bought a car. He says that he stuffed the car with clothes to bring back to Benin and had it shipped. I’m guessing it cost a pretty penny to do all this…and I’m also guessing he’s got more money where that came from. Our meeting with this character of a mayor who could easily play himself in a movie, is over… it was a good meeting.
After lunch Constant finds us (all four wheels in tact) and we’re off to another practice. Fernando has a group of older kids (13 through 15 year olds) at a different school. The kids are older and more talented but everything else about practice is the same. We even have some of the young kids from Monday’s practice show up Tuesday. This school also has a large enclosed schoolyard that is sand packed, has big puddles and is as bumpy as the surface of the moon. Again, same drill as Monday, obedient, excited, talented, barefooted kids who really have been well schooled by Fernando. In general Fernando is a very quiet subdued personality. But when he puts his coaches hat and uniform on, he’s the General Patton of Benin. Practice is similar to Monday…warm ups, ground balls, soft toss and batting practice…and again Fernando is pitching and these 13-15 year olds are whacking the ball all over the place. It again ends with an infield/outfield session with a big puddle in left field. Except here, the older kids stand right in the middle of the water waiting for the ball to come their way. And they usually catch it. Several kids in this group are very serious about baseball. Most of their skills are refined since many of them have been playing year ’round for the last four years when Fernando began coaching and recruiting. All the while, literally dozens of kids from the school gather around to watch baseball practice. It’s a surreal scene.
We have a late dinner with our Embassy friend Chris who, it turns out, graduated from Wayzata High School in the Twin Cities in the late 90’s– played baseball and was coached by a friend of mine. Small world indeed. He also warns us that we need to get something in writing and not to be too excited about our meeting with mayor until we have signed paperwork. Sage advice and we call it a day. Another busy, but productive day for Baseball in Benin.
Day Four (Wednesday) – The Chief, the council and the Luggage
Day four had us heading out the door for a 10am meeting with the Mayor’s subordinate, the “chief of the district”to discuss the land for the field, and ultimately to get his approval. This was a long ways outside of Cotonou. Took us roughly 35 minutes to get there, and we expected to have a little less formal meeting than we had with the mayor and to possibly see the land. Turned out to be quite the opposite. Again as we arrived at this antiquated building miles from the bustle of urban Cotonou we were escorted into a waiting room. Same drill I figured. Hardly any wait this time though. Fernando, Constant, Gary and I, along with a couple of new coaches walk into this small room with no a-c, ceiling fans and windows with shades, no glass. In the room are roughly 15 men in traditional African garb in chairs in a classroom type set up. At the front of the room is the chief, in a traditional white gown and hat. It felt like we had walked back into the 19th century, or earlier. Outside through the “windows” you could hear goats in the yard. The chief speaks in hushed tones (in French) but clearly is in command. He exchanges questions with Fernando, and Fernando and Constant translate for Gary and I. He wants to know how much land we need, what infrastructure can we provide and how soon he can he see blueprints and/or plans. We assure him it can be done quickly. The “meeting” adjourns and we head to the cars. We are off to see the land.
About two and a half miles down a dirt road from the meeting we stop at a thick forested area. This is one of the potential spots. Great, we’re gonna build a field in the middle of the
Sherwood Forest. He says there’s another possible spot a short ways away. So we get back in Constant’s mini van and go…there it is. At the intersection of two dirt roads with a couple road-side stands across the street, one of which is filled with tools (wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, hammers) that its vendor is trying to sell to any one of the 20 people who come by with their goats today.
But this spot is the spot. It’s even shaped like a baseball field. High visibility with no less than 500 feet on its shortest side. The biggest drawback is its distance from anything resembling civilization. It’s a rural setting with animals
(goats, chickens) running loose, kids carrying goods on their heads and pineapple fields dotting the entry road. The chief wants us to widen the road all the way back to the main road as part of the deal. We don’t agree to that, but we do have a piece of paper that reads more like the Declaration of Independence than it does a land deal. The four of us sign it (Fernando, Gary, Constant and I) and one of the new coaches (Gilles) takes the paper and says he will write up the agreement. Gilles does as he says, writes it up and delivers it to us later that day, with 20 signatures on it from the counsel and the District Chief. Now we have it…a written document that says in principle that we can build a baseball field on the
property. The best news about the land is that the ground is a reddish clay, hard-packed dust. Much like the ag-lime that’s used on baseball infields across the U.S….that means that we don’t have to find and bring any in. We are now headed back down the dirt road away from the site of the field back to the main road…we encounter more chickens, goats and a women carrying a display of ladies lingerie on her hat… Like I said, they sell anything, anywhere, anytime here in Benin.
Lunch is next before we head to Fernando’s practices. This time it’s at a popular local spot called Karim’s, not far from our hotel. The Lebanese owned café does all the quick meals you can think of…pizza, chicken, burgers etc. Oh yea, I’m now on about my 10th Coca Cola on our 4th day in Benin. I was warned to stay away from anything that could involve the local tap water, including ice. So I order bottles of Coke and every restaurant seems to have them. Kind of a throw back if you grew up in the 60’s like Gary and I. Drinking ice-cold Coke out of a bottle. It’s relatively safe and it’s pretty good. I rarely drink pop (soda) these days, but I will this week. Better fat than sick I figure.
While you do find Coke, Pepsi and other American companies with goods in Benin, you will not find any fast food joints. No McDonalds or Burger King or KFC or anything of the like. You of course can find anything and everything at a roadside stand..of which the owners are usually there from sun up to midnight. Perfect for Fernando..he has Constant pull over at a roadside fruit stand just a few blocks from the hotel. He needs to buy cell phone minutes…from a fruit stand. Let’s see, I’ll have two pineapples, a bag of oranges, a set of
windshield wipers and give me 120 minutes on my phone. That will be two dollars please.
With the formal part of our day over we head back to the hotel to get ready for two more practices with Fernando’s players. Two separate practices, same day back to back at two different locations. But first, I have Constant take me to the airport…remember, I still don’t have my luggage. This time I come armed with someone who can speak French, which we have clearly established that I can’t. So Constant, dressed in his traditional African garb marches in with me to the airport. Now, they can’t give me the run around I figure. Unless of course they don’t let Constant in the airport. As we try to enter the main doors we are stopped. Constant explains we are there to pick up the luggage and he is there to speak on my behalf. No dice. Security will have nothing of it. Constant doesn’t relent. Finally another security officer of higher rank comes and waves us in…after we get the metal detector wand, of course. Onto the next check point…and Constant talks his way through that. Two down, one to go. This time, he’s not successful, but they do let me through. Here we go again. Constant assures me he’s only a couple hundred feet away and that he’ll wait. Wonderful. So back to the same desk and the same woman who screwed up my lost luggage ticket 3 days earlier, and of course she speaks no English. I hand her my lost luggage paper work and as she dips her head down to look at it, I spot it…BINGO! My suitcase and the last bag of baseball gear sitting right behind her. In my excitement I bang on the counter to get her attention and the poor woman jumps out of her skin. Her co-workers are laughing hysterically. But the siege is over. I have my bag and clean clothes that weren’t washed with shampoo in the sink….sigh. On to baseball practice…
Talk about doubleheaders, Fernando has one every Wednesday, holding practice at one school at 3pm for his younger players, before he hops onto his motorcycle, carrying a large bag of equipment, and races a couple miles down the road for practice #2 at another school for the older kids. So we do the same, but in the relative safety of Constant’s minivan of course. The puddle/lake is still in left field at the 3pm practice…the kids are there waiting for us and per usual they grab the gear out of the van and haul it across the schoolyard to the spot where we practice. From where we park to where practice is must be close to 3 city blocks or a quarter mile. But every day, without asking, the kids grab the heavy bag(s) of gear and haul it that distance. Amazing.
Most of the same kids from Monday are there. I tell Fernando that I need to see his pitchers and at least one catcher. If this team of 11 and 12 year olds has any hope of competing in Minnesota in August, they’ll need to at least have someone who can throw strikes. So the pitching begins. Pitcher number one is good. He throws hard and for the most part throws strikes. The catcher is pretty good too. He blocks the ball unusually well for a 12 year old. Looks like he can find a spot on a hockey team in Minnesota with the goalie-type skills that
he displays. Ok…I’m convinced, his number one pitcher will help his team compete. Pitchers #2 and #3 are decent, but no comparison to #1. After a short scrimmage where I had a hard time keeping onlooking students from dangerously surrounding the batter at the plate while live pitching is being thrown, one of the older kids steps to the plate with a softball bat in his hands. Fernando is pitching and he fires in the first pitch. The string-bean lefty takes a long sweeping swing (ah la Will Clark) with the softball bat and crack, squares up the pitch sending it a couple hundred feet high and over Fernando’s L-screen (tree) and over the “prison” wall. It had to have traveled about 350 feet. Like Babe Ruth, he trots the bases waving his hat and he gives me a high five as he crosses the plate. It was a mamouth shot, and maybe the first out of the park homerun in Beninese history…and I was there to witness it. Impressive. Unfortunately the historic ball will never come back, much like in the movie Sandlot when balls went over a fence and into the yard where the vicious dog lived.
It’s now 5pm and time to hit the road for practice #2 a couple miles down the road. Constant, who drives as fast as you legally can on the streets of Benin races through the neighborhoods to get us to practice #2. But wait, as we get about a block from the second field, I see two players who just came from practice at field #1, running to practice #2. They had run the whole way, basically beating us on foot, just wanting to play more baseball. Who says these kids don’t love the American past time? I turn to Gary and say, “you couldn’t make this stuff up.” It’s remarkable, gratifying and exilerating.
We get inside the school yard entering through a guarded, swinging gate (along with the kids who ran to practice). They help grab gear of course. Bad news though, we get to the area where we normally practice and there’s a soccer game going on. Full uniforms, a referee and they take up a lot of room. Fernando says, no problem..so we squeeze the kids in lines to play catch along one sideline of the soccer field, which really has no official boundaries, because there are none. Let’s remember, this a sand lot with divets, holes and of course a big puddle of water. The soccer ball more than a few times rolls into and/or hits our players who were playing catch. No problem. Nothing is going to stop these kids from practicing and playing baseball. While we warm up, Gary sets up a gadget we brought from the U.S. called a zip and hit. It’s basically a plastic/rubbery ball on a slippery/greased wire that a batter takes a whack at. It simulates a pitched ball without the job of chasing balls. The kids love it…kinda like an amusement park attraction as they gather around to watch and hopefully get a turn. Again a great turnout for practice with no less than 40 kids on hand. Another day of practice is in the books, but as we get to the hotel, my first reality check of what a dangerous part of the world that we are now in. Ahead of us in the hotel driveway are an airport shuttle bus and an official-looking vehicle with flashing yellow lights. As we get out we are looking at Beninese soldiers with assault rifles draped across their chests. Out of the shuttle come the group they are protecting, the flight crew from the Air France flight that just landed. I later learn from Constant (he works for Delta) that this is common practice for Air France crews who stay the night at the Marina hotel waiting for their flight out of Benin the next day. Fear of kidnapping is the explanation. Wow..now I know. Needless to say, an eventful day.
Day Five (Thursday ): The Ambassador and “Wabasha”
Today is another big day. We’ve been invited to meet the US Ambassador to Benin Lucy Tamlyn. We all get dressed up (thank goodness I now have my luggage, or it would’ve been golf polo shirt, again, and jeans). Nope, I can go shirt and tie…everyone is decked out for the formal meeting. as we head to the embassy. Again, the usual shakedown to get in. This time I was smart, leaving everything but my wallet and passport behind. Whoops, apparently I should’ve left my wallet behind too. The security guard (who again speaks zero English) communicates that I need to take my credit cards out of my wallet. What? Didn’t happen on Monday. So I hand him my wallet. He sees that there’s cash in it and he jumps…no cash. In other words, he can’t take it if it has cash for fear of being accused of bribery. Yikes, Benghazi did change things. Finally we all get through and Chris Schirm is again there to greet us. Bad news he says, the Ambassador got called away at the last minute and wont be able to meet with us. So we get her second in command, Todd Whatley. Chris assures us that Todd is a big sports enthusiast and he’ll be a good audience for us. Chris was right. Turns out that Todd’s wife’s family is from Minnesota and they live in Wabasha. After hearing our story, Todd is immeasurably impressed with our Baseball in Benin effort and basically says there’s no question the U.S. Embassy wants to be involved. He even says that his family is going to be on vacation in Minnesota this August and wants to come to the tournament, so he writes down the dates, August 4-7. “I’ll be there..you can count on it.” I gather from our conversation that we will be on his list to continue our work in Benin. What that means remains to be seen, but it’s all good.
So we miss the ambassador, but this probably works out even better. We head back to the hotel to change and get ready for the drive to see another young man (Arnaud) who was trained by Fernando a couple years ago, and his players and practices on this steamy hot Thursday afternoon.
Like Fernando, Arnaud’s practice field is also a school yard in the middle of an urban neighborhood. Again, it’s all sand, but actually not as many holes or obstructions, trees/ponds as the fields where Fernando has his teams. The roads to get there are horribly ruddy, narrow dirt roads with potholes, puddles and tons of pedestrians and traffic. The city of Cotonou, and for that matter, all cities in this area of Benin just refuse to do anything to upgrade the roads. The guess here is that there’s no money.
As we get out of the car, Arnaud runs to greet us. He is a slight young man, probably around the age of 30 who works as a school teacher. After greeting us he gathers his 50 or so players who line up shoulder to shoulder. They too are dressed out in various Little League uniforms from Robbinsdale, Hopkins, Crystal and Golden Valley. Arnaud then announces
that his players are going to sing to us a greeting. And they do…in English (and I assume that none of them speak English). You can’t make this stuff up. It’s absolutely heartwarming as these kids bellow out in English a welcome song. They truly appreciate the opportunity they are given to play baseball. After their song (and I did video-record it) the kids grab gloves out of the equipment bag and the bag that we brought. Many of these gloves are too big, too small or broken, or all of the above. Note to self, we need more gloves…and better gloves for Benin.
Arnaud is very precise about everything he does. He pulls out a measuring tape to set up the correct base lengths to set up a “field” while his players play catch. He is gracious and hard working, much like his players. The talent level of this group is not where Fernando’s teams are…They are several steps behind, but make no mistake, they are on the right path. Gary takes a group of kids and works them off the tee, while I hammer ground balls to a group of kids. And while the surface is not as bad as Fernando’s practice fields, the kids know how to pick up bad hops…much like Fernando’s group. We
spend about 2 and a half hours working with the kids on drills, observing and letting them scrimmage. Arnaud has a few young “helpers” as assistant coaches. He needs more. There are about 50 kids here of all ages and Gary and I were busy helping too..And on top of it all, it is Africa-hot today and we smother ourselves in 50-block suntan lotion. We had to.
At about 4:30 we wrap things up and Arnaud has his team singing again..this time a thank you/good bye song. Enough to bring you to tears if you have any feeling for what these barefooted baseball pioneer kids must have for a life. This is clearly one of the highlights of their young lives. I hand out pieces of salt water taffy candy that I brought from Minnesota. They eagerly line up and each take one piece. Click here to watch and listen to Arnaud’s team singing at the end of practice…Another highlight.. We do a cheer at the end of practice where we all yell, one, two three “Wahoo”…they love it, and chase me to the car yelling “Wahoo” and high fiving me all the way. It’s hard to leave, but we have to go. It’s been another eye-opening day..
We get back to the hotel around 6pm and we decide to finally make use of the beautiful pool that is adjacent to the hotel. As we get in the water, we notice more security. More armed guards around the pool area (three of them) with assault rifles keeping us safe. Just another day in paradise.
See you tomorrow
Day 6- Friday Running practice and the pool
We finally got a day with a late start…and hung around the hotel til about noon before heading out to see for the first time parts of downtown Cotoneau. While there are still plenty of roadside stands and roving street vendors, this looked more like a 21st century big city than anything we had seen previously. Now don’t be mistaken. We are still in Benin so street vendors are everywhere and on a scorching hot day what would be a better sell than a swimming pool ? Yep…no kidding. First the guy selling windshield wipers walks up to your car waving his goods. By the way, the windshield wiper sellers are everywhere. Then just as you wave him off a guy carrying kids blow up swimming pools comes by. Fully blown up…carrying on his head. Hey, what a great idea. It’s a hot day…I’ll take two please.
We eat lunch at another pizza, chicken and burger joint (did I mention that I had a cheese burger at our hotel earlier in the week? I was told that burgers in Cotoneau are good eats..now I’m not a big red-meat eater but I figured when in Rome…so I had the cheese burger. It was ok…but not the greatest taste if you asked me. I find out later that Mr. Ed would not be happy with my meal choice. Let’s just say, I didn’t and won’t be eating any more burgers here or anywhere else anytime soon). Lunch was fine today…again, I stay with the safe food choice and choose Pizza 4 formage…Four-cheese pizza. The waiter drove me crazy though in bringing today’s dose of Coke. He’d get it out of the cooler and let it sit on the counter for 10 minutes while I watched and while he waited for the rest of the order to be completed. Couldn’t make two trips. I guess I don’t blame him. He probably doesn’t get paid enough.
After lunch it was a quick ride back to our hotel where Fernando flagged down a bus driver and hired him to take the kids to the game on Saturday at Arnaud’s teams’ practice field (sandlot). For $60 bucks he’ll pick them up in the morning at 8:30am at the school and drive them to the game, then wait and bring them back afterwards. Pretty good job of negotiating by Fernando. Saturday’s game should be interesting. US Embassy personnel are coming including the Marines. Fernando’s bombers will be playing Arnaud’s Singing Choir Boys. Meanwhile Arnaud arranged for a large tent and chair rental for our dignitaries watching the “big game”.
The rest of Friday is at the fields…another doubleheader for Fernando’s players….3pm at CEG Nokoue. Just a handful of players on hand for an unusual Friday practice. ( I told Fernando to schedule a Friday practice so we can prepare his team for Saturday’s game). The good news is that the puddles/pond is finally gone. It only took 4 straight days of 90-degree-plus temps to dry it out. One of the players who is there is Fernando’s best 11/12 year old, Fidel. Fidel will be this team’s starting pitcher against Arnaud tomorrow, and probably in Minnesota this summer. More on Fidel later. We do some base running drills then finish up with a mini-scrimmage. We’re done at 5pm and the kids pack the gear up before I give them each some Double Bubble gum. They loved it. Meanwhile Fernando and Gary meet with a few of the parents who show up to pick up their kids. Gary tells them about the opportunity for their kids to come to America this summer as part of a team to play in our wood bat tournament, and that they will incur no cost. It’s a no-brainer. The parents are “all in” as they politely ask some logistics questions. We then pack up the gear and head to Practice #2, again about 2 miles away.
Just as we pull into the second practice Fernando’s phone rings. Somebody at the first field was calling to say we left a bag behind. Turns out it was Gary’s backpack…so Gary and Constant will go back while Fernando and I would start practice. Gary doubles back and Constant goes back on his own. About 15 minutes later, I see three of Fernando’s players from the earlier practice come running up…Rush hour dangers, bare feet, 2-miles..and one of them has the backpack. Yep, you guessed it. It’s Fidel. Gary pulls out money and gives him a reward. I reach into my bag of tricks and give them more candy/gum. These kids ran two miles through all kinds of obstacles to be sure that Gary got his bag back. In the U.S. it would probably be gone, forever.
Practice #2 is a rough one…we are literally inundated with soccer players everywhere, getting hit by soccer balls and run over by Pele….ugh. No room to hit real balls and no room to take infield or scrimmage. We do get some groundball drills in along with some running and run down drills. Everyone is tired and sweating…It’s been a really hot day and those street vendor swimming pools sound pretty good about now. We wrap things up at 7pm and head back to the hotel to cool off and get on a change of clothes for dinner.
So the decision for dinner is a seafood place where the locals eat..again in a narrow back alley filled with potholes. Street vendors and dozens of cars parked every-which-way. We walk into the restaurant and it has a very cool African ambiance. Fernando and Constant ask Gary and I if we’re comfortable in such a native/homey setting and we love it. The food is terrific and Gary and I get our usual Cokes..except these are unusual…huge glass Coke bottles…I didn’t know they even made them this big anymore, or ever for that matter.
Then a power outage. They happen all the time in Benin. On average since we’ve been here, three times a day, sometimes more. Everyone, including this restaurant and our hotel, has generators run by gasoline (plenty of that available here in Benin, in large vase-like jars on any street). Actually, while writing tonight’s log, the power went out….It usually goes back on via generator within a few minutes…it did and I got this done. Tomorrow is another day, and the big game to put the cherry on the cake of our trip this week. Cant wait…until then, Au Revoir.
Day 7: Saturday May 28 – Game Day
Today is the day…We wake up early so we can be ready for the bus at 8am. Fernando cut a deal Friday night with a guy who drives an extended size min van (three rows of seats behind the driver)..here they call them buses. We need to get Fernando’s team from CEG Vedeko (one of the schools where he holds his regular practices) to Cocotomey, where Arnaud’s team regularly practices. Fernando cuts a great deal. The driver will take the kids to and from the game for $60 (about a half hour drive one way)…and he’s going to hang around and wait for it to end. In all, it was about a seven hour day for the driver and his vehicle.
The driver picks us up at the hotel and takes us to the school where the kids are waiting. We pull out new uniforms for them to wear..Beautiful new looking Pirates uniforms that were donated by Golden Valley Little League. With the matching yellow hats that I brought from Robbinsdale Park and Rec, they look sharp…and based on what we’ve seen this week in practice, they’ll be heavy favorites today. Of course it’s not just the 15 kids that were suited up that want to pile into the bus…nope, there are about 45 kids…about 30 of them squeeze in…so the driver agrees to come back and get the rest for another $10 bucks. Sold!
Constant is at the school as well and we ride with him to the game. As we get closer (heading west) we notice that it had rained significantly not too long ago…and actually it’s drizzling now. The one thing we can not deal with today is a rainout. We are now hoping for the best.
When we pull up to the Cocotomey field you could feel the excitement. It’s a festive atmosphere with loud African music blaring from a huge speaker across the street. It’s still drizzling, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to last, and it doesn’t. Arnaud had rented a huge tent and chairs for parents and any other dignitaries to sit under out of the sun or rain. The Pirates pile out of their bus and again, they look like imposing. New uniforms, hats, socks, pants…Meanwhile Arnaud’s team lines up to get their new Florida Marlins uniforms. In all, it takes about a half hour to get the kids fitted, changed and ready to go.
The best part about what I see today is the spot where Arnaud and some of his older players have set up the field. The sandy surface is actually in good condition thanks to the rain earlier in the day. He has about four or five rakes and the older kids are cleaning and manicuring what would be the infield. The rakes are like leaf rakes with flimsy bamboo at the end of the rake. That’s what they use to groom the field. Surprisingly it looks really good. Arnaud is very meticulous and it pays off here. He says he’s ready to chalk the field, but of course there is no “chalk” in Benin, so what is he talking about? His kids retrieve about a half dozen lunch bags filled with ashes. We scrape out baselines in the sand and they fill it with the ashes. Brilliant! And better still, it looks great!
After both teams line up and sing the Benin national anthem, Christopher Schirm from the US Embassy throws out a ceremonial first pitch. We then have Fernando and Arnaud do the same and amazingly, we are ready to play ball. There, of course, is no backstop, no bench and no fencing. So out from the school come kids carrying wooden desks. The double-level desks will serve as benches…there are three for Arnaud’s team…just two for Fernando’s visiting team (I told Arnaud that’s what home field advantage is). The benches are literally about 20 feet from home plate down the respective baselines, so this of course is and can be a safety hazard. Beyond that, there are people lined up down each baseline about three or four deep about 20-30 feet into the outfield. I literally have to go into the outfield to ask them to move outside of the foul lines. Everyone is curious, so there’s no way I’m going to get them to move away from home plate or the baselines. All these people and kids are in the direct line of fire from a foul ball. Some of the older kids (13, 14 and 15 yr olds) form a semi-circle behind the catcher, and with their gloves on will be our backstop today. I am worried that someone might get hurt. At home this would never fly in a million years. But there is no way to temper all this enthusiasm for the first official game ever in Benin, and everyone wants to be a part of it.
Arnaud’s Marlins bat first against Fernando’s top pitcher Fidel. Fidel is the real deal. He throws hard and throws strikes. He would do just fine playing Little League in the United States. Fidel mows down the first two hitters with strike outs and gets the 3rd batter to ground out to first. A one, two, three first inning. The Pirates don’t waste any time as they start with a couple of line drive hits in the bottom of the first including a liner by Fidel to bring home the game’s first run. The Pirates bench goes crazy when the run scores. The Pirates score 4 more for a 5-run first inning. We’re worried that this could get ugly..There would’ve been six runs except that Arnaud claims that the last runner missed home plate, so I explain to him how appeal. He does and they win the appeal, three outs.
Some worthwhile happenings to note during the game:
- Not only could we not keep fans outside the baselines, they begin to file into the outfield, just beyond the outfielders. At least three times balls were hit over the outfielder’s heads and they had to go around spectators to retrieve the ball. One time the fan picked it up and threw it back to the infield
- My worst fears were confirmed when a right handed batter swings late and rockets one at the Pirates bench. It hits a young man named Carlos then ricochets off another player’s head. In Minnesota, we would’ve stopped the game, called 911, filed police and injury reports, sent him by ambulance to North Memorial hospital for x-rays. In Benin, he is stunned for a few minutes, re-gathers himself and is back in the game. No problem here.
- While warm-ups were going on before the game, I notice a large banner is being hung across one opening of the spectator tent. It has Gary’s name, my name, Constant and Torii Hunter listed…It really hits me now, how important today is to these great people.
- A couple innings into the game, Fernando’s catcher cleaned the plate…by picking it up and shaking off the sand. No umpire’s whisk broom needed here.
- Even though this is the first game he’s ever coached, Arnaud is just like any other coach. He’s caught up with the velocity of his pitcher’s pitches. In the 4th inning he changes pitchers and after three batters (two of them make outs) he wants to go back to his starting pitcher. I encourage him to stick with his 2nd pitcher to finish the inning to speed things along.
- Fernando and his team weren’t happy in the 2nd inning when one of the Marlins slid into first base, claiming you can’t slide into first. Not true.. The players and coach Fernando were on the umpire (Gary) over the call. We explain the ruling to him and we also talk about not arguing with the ump, particularly the players. It’s a learning experience for everyone today, and that’s ok.
- Arnaud’s team cut the deficit to 5-2 in the 2nd inning, but that’s as close as they would get for the rest of the day. As we thought, Fernando’s team is more developed and ahead of Arnaud’s team in their skill level. They win the game 10-3 and again go crazy when the last out is recorded. A huge celebration is then followed by a hand shaking ritual that we have to set up and show them how to do it
After the game and the hand shaking we take photos of both teams with the crowds still surrounding us and smothering us. I barely have room to get back far enough to take the photos. I brought a Twins jersey that I got at Target Field last year for the game MVP…it’s clearly Fidel. It’s a Danny Santana jersey. Hopefully Santana can live up to Fidel’s standards…he’s set the bar pretty high. I then hand out packages of baseball cards to each of the players who played in the game. They’re excited to get them, but clearly have no idea what they’ve been given. Oh well, maybe someday they’ll understand.
We then head over to the tent for a brief meeting with the parents. This could be difficult because we know we may face some tough questions about bringing their 11 and 12 year old sons to Minnesota this summer. Turns out that’s not the case at all. There are a handful of parents attending who are nothing but grateful for the opportunity that their kids are getting. Fernando and Arnaud are there to interpret as once again nobody speaks the same language…except for the huge smiles we get once Gary explains the process. We do get the one tough question we expected—What about the kids that don’t get chosen? After all we can only bring 12 to the United States. We explain that 20 will be chosen and 12 will end up coming to America and that we hope to offer another opportunity in the next year or two. I also mention that the kids who are chosen will bring back the excitement of their venture that will inspire others to work hard for a chance to maybe come next time. They seem satisfied with the answers….Whew!….glad I came up with a plausible explanation.
It’s now time to pile the kids back onto the bus. Before we do, we hand out candy, gum and socks that we brought from home. It’s a cluster and we get mobbed. Arnaud controls the situation and gets the kids to get into a single file line. Of course, we again have the problem of not enough room on the bus, so the driver will have to return for the rest of the kids. After the bus leaves a young girl about age 12 or 13 comes by with a platter of something on her head in little plastic bags. I ask Benoit (one of Fernando’s coaches) what’s in the bags and he says it’s some kind of cookies. I ask how much will 2000 francs (local currency) will buy and he say 20 bags. I give the girl the money and let her and Benoit sort out who’s gonna get the cookies. I don’t think it really matters. She just made her biggest sale of the day…maybe ever.
As Fernando, Gary, Constant and I get into our van the kids are picking up the chairs and the rest of the baseball equipment. The ones who remain are chanting “Wahoo, Wahoo” to me. It’s a phrase that was repeated throughout the week and throughout the game today. (I was wearing my Cleveland Indians hat whose logo’s name is Chief Wahoo. I know, not politically correct, but the kids loved saying “Wahoo”…they’re having fun). It’s been an exhausting day and exilerating day. But it’s a day I’ll never forget, and I don’t think they will either. They’ve witnessed history.
Day 7 – Part two The Market. Bicycle Chickens and another pool
Baseball is finally done for the week. Time now to hunt for some souvenirs to bring home for the family. I’ve been to Mexico and the Carribean…I’ve dealt with ticket scalpers in front of Target Field and Target Center…Let me tell you, those folks have nothing on the negotiators/salespeople we encounter at this market. It’s one hut after another of African art, artifacts, shirts, beads, jewelry, necklaces and whatever….My advice is to carry lots of small bills because nobody wants to give you change. You barter for a price, say $3000 (local franc) which is about $6.00 and you give them a $5000 note…they don’t want to give you change. They want to sell you something else so you don’t get the last $2000 ($4). It’s amazing how much you find yourself haggling over a dollar or two when at home you walk into Target and drop $100 at the drop of a hat. “My friend…Please” they all seem to know that. Fortunately we have Fernando with us to interpret and middle the negotiations. One woman, who kept calling me “my friend” also knows another phrase. “you’re killing me” she says in broken English as she motions a throat slash after we make an offer on some beads. It takes us about 15 minutes for her to finally give in and give us our change. Yikes….we finally escape with our treasures. Constant is waiting in the van. He knew better…smart guy.
Lunch is next and we stop at a local “joint” and sit outside behind the restaurant in a covered patio. We are now the new target for roving vendors…and they’re selling everything. Not shy, they walk right into the restaurant patio with their goods and up to your table…CDs, hats, Kleenex, windshield wipers, USB cables, books, radios…you name it, they’ve got it. So we ask one of the electronics salesmen if he has a flash drive…he does, but his price is off the charts. The negotiations begin…then they end when Fernando says he’ll give us one that these products can’t be trusted. Next up is the food and Gary and I order rotisserie chicken and fries. The order comes and the chicken looks good, but a little lean. I try biting into it and get all bone..It’s hard as a rock. There is basically no meat on these bones. Constant explains that these are from what they call “bicycle chickens”. What?? Apparently they are chickens that run loose and are very muscular. Wonderful…I’m eating the Arnold Schwarznegger of chickens. How fitting.
Arnaud joins us for lunch and we discuss the players we think have the best chance to make “Team Benin” competitive when they come to America. We’ve got a pretty good idea who the 12 are. Only the four of us know at this point and that’s the way it will stay, at least for a while. It’s like a life experience lottery for 12 kids. Good thing I don’t have to be there to break the news to the others. Before we leave Arnaud’s brother shows up bearing gifts for Gary and I. A beautiful wooden tray and bowls that he carved himself. Dawn (my wife) is going to love it. He may even send some over to sell this summer at our tournament.
We head back to the hotel where Constant drops Gary, Fernando and I off…we head to the pool and make good use of it. Fernando and I watch the Dennis Quaid baseball movie “Rookie” before turning in. I can’t believe we experienced what just happened today. What a day.
Day 8 – Sunday May 29 Final Day in Benin – historic Ouidah
Finally, a day to explore Benin..After a relatively late breakfast at 9:30am we get word from Constant that we can do a pre-check in for our 11:30pm flight back to the U.S. So we scramble to get our luggage together and hustle to the airport where we get there at 11:59am…they take pre-check in until noon. The security guard points to the clock and laughs, we just made it.
We then venture into the downtown market place where I pick up some fabric to bring back to the U.S…my mother-in-law is the queen of making pillows etc and has requested some African design material. No problem. Fernando knows just where to go and we cut a deal in a matter of minutes for 6 meters of fabric….boom done. We then head to Fernando’s house to drop off the three large bags and box of baseball equipment that we had brought from Minnesota. Fernando lives with his father, brother, two sisters and half brother. His father is waiting for us when we arrive and asks us to come upstairs into his house. We climb the narrow stairwell a couple of flights into the living area. It’s a modest home with no doors inside..the rooms are all separated by drapes. There’s a balcony that overlooks the neighborhood and I use the opportunity to take some photos. Afterward we head into the living room where Fernando’s young half-brother is watching cartoons on TV, in English. Probably a good idea to know two languages, just like big brother. We sit down and Fernando’s father presents us each with maticulously wrapped gifts that are African shirts. In our last couple of days we have been flooded with gifts. The people here are genuinely thankful for what we are doing.
It’s Sunday in Cotoneau and while many of the usual roadside stands are not around today, traffic is still heavy. We pass a guy on a motorcycle who has a couch tied to it, balancing it between himself and the handle bars…only in Benin. Heck, that wasn’t even the most unusal thing we’ve seen on a motorcycle…earlier in the week there was a guy carrying four live chickens, two in each hand. We grab lunch (we had chicken ironically) before heading to the historic town of Ouidah. Ouidah is considered the birthplace of voodoo and where slaves from all over Africa were brought before they were sent off to North and South America. It’s an eerie feeling knowing that history as you pull into the town.
Ouidah is about an hour drive from Cotoneau and we are joined by Arnaud, so we now have five of us headed out of town. Much like the rest of Benin there is plenty of bootlegged gas in large glass containers at just about every roadside stand. The price for gas in Cotoneau is $350 franc per liter or approximately $2.32 per gallon. The price goes up when you get out of town and was $425 franc per liter in Ouidah. As we’re speeding along on the highway you see motorcycles getting their tanks filled from those glass containers all along the way. The highway is divided but goes down to one lane either way because of construction. An interesting trick as there are no cones, or signage…one side of the road just ends and you’re expected to move to the other side. It also seems dangerous considering the driving tactics of many of these drivers who pass on the right, cut each other off and pull out in front of each other constantly. Fortunately for us Constant is a super-skilled Beninese driver who manages to avoid careless motorcyclists and other drivers. It is definitely an art driving in this country.
Ouidah is a dusty little town with voodoo huts dotting the roadside as you pull into town. Like everywhere in Benin, there are goats and chickens running loose at every turn. The streets in Ouidah are exceptionally narrow. Constant pulls up to a place called the Temple des Pythons. The people here believe that pythons are sacred, so Gary, Fernando and I decide to take the python tour. Inside the walls our English speaking guide explains the history of the pythons. He then takes us into the “temple” where there are about a dozen live snakes. We step outside and he asks if any of us wants to put one of the snakes on our shoulders. Fernando volunteers, and lives to tell about it. At first I say no, but then I relent and we take a photo with this monstrous snake draped over my shoulders. What was I thinking? Probably won’t do that again.
Time now to visit the historic “Door of no return.”. It’s the spot on the coast where the slaves would walk through before heading off to sea. The road to the beach however is flooded. We watch a larger SUV sink its wheels fairly deep before clearing the water.We’re in a mini-van. Constant edges close to the flooded area, but on Gary and my advice decides against it. Afterall, we’re the ones that want to see this…but we’re in no mood to push a minivan out of the mud/water. We turn around and head out of town and back to Cotoneau.
As we head back traffic is slowed and a crowd is gathered in the middle of the road. For the first time all week we see wreckage from an accident. A motorcyclist appears to be on the ground and in pain and his bike is a wreck. There is a large crowd gathered around him both gawking and tending to him. We slow up enough to see it and we drive on. Considering how insane all the driving seems to be here, it’s nothing short of a miracle that we haven’t seen more accidents.
As we approach the city we get a call from Chris Schirm. He invites us to his house for dinner with his wife and kids. Perfect, a taste of American life in Benin right before we get on the plane. After dropping off Arnaud, Constant takes us to the hotel where Chris picks up Fernando, Gary and I. It’s a great way to finish our visit as we have some good discussions with Chris about the future of Baseball in Benin and our growing relationship with the U.S. Embassy. At 9pm we make the short drive to the airport where Chris drops the three of us off. The Air France flight to Paris is the only flight out of Benin that night, so as usual the airport is busy. There must be a couple hundred people milling about outside the airport. As we approach the security door, we spot Arnaud who is there to say goodbye. As we are standing there talking to Arnaud and Fernando we talk about getting back to Minnesota and a tall young man in his 20’s approaches us and asks if we are headed to Minnesota. Turns out he is going our way and lives in St. Louis Park, MN…about 3 or 4 miles from my house. He sees my Twins hat and we start talking baseball. He is a Benin native and loves the idea of our project and wants to be on hand when the kids from Benin come to Minnesota this summer. Another Minnesota connection. You can’t make this stuff up.
Gary and I say our goodbyes to Arnaud and Fernando and head into security and to our flight. The odor of an old building with hundreds of people crowded around is distinct. There are no video screens anywhere in the airport with any information about our flight. We just follow the crowd. It is after all, the only flight out, so who needs flight information? We go through security and carry-on bag checks once in the terminal, and then again outside on the tarmac next to the plane. No electronic scanning, just old fashioned open up the bags and search ’em. Thank goodness it wasn’t raining. Our whirlwind week in Benin has come to an end….It has been an unbelievable success and a trip we will never forget. We are making a difference, and it’s a great feeling. But of course, there is still much work to be done, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.