Two years ago Gary Tonsager and I made an 8 day trip to Benin West Africa to continue our work bringing baseball to that small impoverished nation. Our work included running practices, camps, meeting with public officials and helping set up a trip to Minnesota that summer for 12 Little League aged players. This month we have returned to Benin to continue our work and initiate the first Little League sanctioned season and games.
Friday May 11, 2018
As we found out in 2016, there is no easy way to get to Benin from Minnesota. Only one flight a day comes into the country so your choices are pretty limited. This year we flew from Minneapolis to Detroit…from Detroit to Paris and finally from Paris to Benin. There is a heavy French influence in Benin which was one time colonized by the French. Air France is the one carrier that comes into Benin. From door to door (hotel door) it was a 27 hour venture. We left My house in suburban Robbinsdale at about 1:30pm (Central time) Thursday and got to our hotel at 4:30pm Friday (Minneapolis time).
In 2016 when we came Gary accidentally left his passport in a scanner at MSP before we took off for Paris and had to retrieve it…I’ve never let him forget the incident. This time it was me at MSP…and I left mine on the counter at Burger King where we ate lunch. Ironically (and luckily) the worker at Burger King had recognized me from my long-gone TV days and she picked it up and brought it to us at our table as we ate. My days of using
the 2016 incident against Gary officially ended at that moment.
Our flights were good…we flew business class this time which made it easier on our long, now older legs for this long grueling trip. (I would highly recommend it by the way on any long trip). The end portion of our trip was in the dark on Friday night…and it’s no wonder Africa is known as the dark continent…not many lights in Africa to light up the earth below as we flew over.
Two years ago we encountered all kinds of trouble when we arrived at the airport…We were laughing about that as we landed on this runway that’s only used twice a day for international flights…It’s a very, very, very small airport…as evidenced by the windsock that I saw next to the runway as we pulled up closer to the terminal. I don’t believe I saw any windsocks at Charles DeGaulle. I think the last windsock I saw at an airport was at the makeshift landing strip next to Madden’s resort on Gull Lake near Brainerd (MN).
Again there are no jetways here…you are dropped on the tarmac and you walk down the steps into the night..you get a bus ride to the actual check in point of this small terminal…But unlike two years ago when we waited well over an hour to get processed through customs, we breezed through…they have brand new booths for security personnel and I spotted a new flat screen TV in the baggage claim area…speaking of which, no baggage issues this year (two years ago the airline lost my luggage and it didn’t show up until 4 days later).
As we were walking toward the entrance/exit Gary and I commented that there might not be anyone to greet us…especially nothing as good a 2016 when about 10 or 15 friends and family members of our coaches showed up. Tonight, way different…and better! Around 50 people, including coaches, players, family members etc. I think we held up at least 50 people trying to get out of the airport with our grand reception and photo session. Everyone wants to take photos and be in the photos with us (not sure why, but what the heck…it’s fun to be in demand I guess). Both of our lead coaches are there, Fernando and Arnaud and we lead a large parade of people and cars that head over to our nearby hotel. On the subject of the hotel…something new this year as there is now a metal detector that we have to walk through just to get into the lobby. We”re in with all our equipment, backstops and luggage and we are exhausted. 27 1/2 hours of travel winds up. Tomorrow is another day, and it will be a busy one.
Saturday May 12
Johnny on the spot, Fernando is knocking on our door at 9:30am ready for breakfast and ready to take us to our meeting with the coaches and an afternoon of practice.
Riding through the streets of Cotonou is never dull. Huge speed bumps that we endure as Fernando navigates with the usual parade of motorcycles and a fair amount of actual 4-wheeled vehicles. Of course there are street vendors everywhere selling anything and everything you could imagine. Today as we pulled up to an intersection and waited for traffic we were offered multi-colored popcorn, a huge machete (presumably to cut out the bad parts of the popcorn), large wall clocks, DVDs, candy, balloons, soccer balls and more. They literally walk right in between traffic and right up to your car window, staring in…It’s hard not to look, but if you do, they won’t go away cause they think you’re interested in buying. Fortunately Gary already had a machete under his seat and we don’t do soccer. One thing I did notice…not very many vendors selling gas. In 2016 there were literally dozens of people selling bootlegged gas from Nigeria. Fernando says that the government has cracked down on these bootleggers so more people are actually using the gas stations. We don’t ever see anyone at the gas station, but that’s ok too.
Fernando decides to stop at his house (on our way to the meeting)where he is the mayor of the neighborhood. The mayor doesn’t get much respect here as there is a large, loud tented party going on across the road with extremely loud African music and men and women dressed in traditional African garb. Minus the African clothes, we get the same kind of stuff across from our house in Minnesota, except that it’s the mayor doing the partying. Today in Cotonou several of the women are stirring some kind of white, gooey glue-like substance in what Fernando says is part of a religious baptismal ceremony. We go up into Fernando’s home (he moved about a block away from where he was in 2016 when we visited). Again very modest living conditions, but they do have a large flat screen in the living. room. Fernando lives here with his father and brothers and sisters. In addition, they have some outdoor pets…about a half dozen chickens are scooting around the small dirt covered yard. Interestingly all of their bedrooms have locks on the door. Fernando unveils his room to us that’s filled with baseball hats, photos and memorabilia.
On to the school for the coaches meeting where we go into the schoolyard through a gate that one of the kids opens for us. We pull up and lo and behold there are at least 100 kids dressed out in baseball hats, shirts, pants and socks, most from Little League programs in the Minneapolis western suburbs including Robbinsdale, Crystal, Golden Valley, Plymouth-New Hope, St.Louis Park and Hopkins. It’s fun to see. In addition there are about 15 coaches there to command these troups. They greet us with some loud chants of “Baseball in Benin” and say “Welcome to the presidents of Baseball in Benin”. Actually Gary is the only president. I’m just the press secretary. After another 10 minutes of photos, including one with 8 of the 12 kids who came to Minnesota in 2016, we head into a classroom to teach these 15 or so volunteer coaches a few these about a game that they practice all the time, but rarely play games in.
The 15 coaches endure a 2 and a half hour learning session with just one 15-minute break. What’s amazing is how attentive they are to what we are teaching. No cell phones or ipods or whatever to distract them. They are there to learn and we do our best, showing them how to keep score, how to umpire, basic rules, how to write a line-up…a lot of stuff that we of course take for granted. We hand out scorebooks, line-up cards, t-shirts and a basic coaching manual that Gary put together (in French) that includes a code of conduct that we ask them to agree to. When we get done with Baseball 101, another 10 minutes of photos with all the coaches wearing their new Baseball in Benin t-shirts.
It’s now onto practice which is another 15 minutes down the road…and many, if not all of the kids who practiced in the morning prior to our coaches meeting, were there at the second school for the afternoon practice at 3:30pm. So we’re now at the second schoolyard and over 100 kids are there to practice…some for the second time today. The coaches take their groups of kids (teams) and spread out all over this huge school yard. When we did this 2 years ago, we had about 20-25 kids practicing. This is different. This is impressive. And get this baseball fans. Two years ago we came and there were several
soccer games and practices taking over this enormous schoolyard. Today, just 8 kids kicking a ball around while over 100 kids are playing baseball. Quite a difference from 2016. And later in the day, the soccer players stop to watch some of the drills and batting practice. We are winning over these kids with baseball. YES!!!
The other thing I notice is the upgrade in talent. The level of talent has taken leaps and bounds over what it was in 2016. More kids are playing and they’re playing year round in this 88-degree heat and 80-percent humidity. I throw a round of BP and there are several kids who would be good candidates to come to Minnesota this summer…Fernando already has them all marked down, which is good. We’re on the same page.
What’s sad is the state of and lack of equipment. Only a few sad looking bats, about 8 or so baseballs, all in terrible shape. The equipment that we’ll hand out on Sunday to these coaches will be a godsend. I can’t believe how bad the baseballs are. One coach, Benoit, spends about two hours talking, teaching and coaching without a bat, ball or gloves. Gary comes to the rescue with a couple balls so that they can at least do drills and not have pretend baseballs for the final hour or practice.
One aside, Fernando disappeared for about an hour during this 3 hour practice. When he returned we find out that his vehicle had overheated on his way back to his house to pick up coaches certificates. Turns out his car is on a roadside and here in Benin the mechanics come to you. No need booking an appointment online. You call, they come. Unfortunately it was close to midnight before they finally got it fixed. We in the meantime got rides from coaches and taxi cabs…all part of the fun.
Day two is in the books. Day three will be spent handing out equipment and doing a coaches clinic with Arnaud’s group in Cocotomey, a nearby city/rival to Cotonou. More teaching, umpiring and coaching. Looking forward to it. Until then, Au revoir.
Sunday May 13
Our first order of business today will be to distribute the equipment that we had shipped from Minnesota about 6 weeks ago. In mid-March we were at Gary’s Pearle Vision store in Edina (MN) where we packed 13 barrels full of baseball equipment, enough for 18 teams. Today we would hand that equipment out to each of the coaches….and as you could probably imagine, it wasn’t going to be easy.
Fernando is again driving us (yes, his borrowed vehicle is fixed!) and we head toward the nearby municipality of Calavi. We of course encounter the usual amount of traffic and street vendors who would sell their mothers on this Mother’s Day if they could find a buyer….Windshield wipers among today’s unique car-side-to-go sales. The nice part about that is you get free, on-the-spot installation. We take a pass on that opportunity.
Calavi is about a half hour ride outside of Cotonou and it turns fairly rural in a hurry. As we’re headed out of town I start seeing it again…bootlegged gas from Nigeria. We saw tons of it (or gallons in this case) being sold everywhere in 2016. Fernando says that the mayor of Calavi turns his head on it, so it’s gas for sale at every fruit stand and t-shirt shack for miles. Very large see-through vase-like containers everywhere. The going rate is 300 franks per litir. It computes out to about $2 dollars and 8 cents per gallon. No oil price gouging here. When we do fill up, we’ll go to one of the many empty gas stations. I literally have seen a dozen of them over the first three days and never anyone buying gas. It’s no wonder.
We turn off the main road/highway onto a side road. We are followed by a gang of motorcycle riding baseball coaches who are anxious to collect their equipment. There are small villages dotting this side road for miles…shack-like home after shack-like home with everyone selling something on a table outside their front door. Chickens and goats running across the rut filled road along the way. Huge puddles in the middle of the road from the previous days rains. Women carrying baskets of anything and everything on their heads. I can’t possibly imagine who these people sell some of this stuff to, but give them an A for effort, they’re out there all hours of the day in the scorching hot sun trying to make a sale.
We’ve now been on this side road for about 15 minutes and there appears to be no end in sight as we follow a couple of motorcyclists who are leading us to the home where the barrels of equipment are being stored. Finally after about 20 minutes of back-breaking driving on these god-forsaken roads we arrive. It’s a gated home behind a large purple gate. A man we find out to be Armand’s brother (Armand is the one who helped arrange the shipping from Edina) comes out to greet us and welcome us in. We walk inside the gate and wa-la! There they are…the 13 barrels that we packed in Edina in Mid-March. How the hell they got to this home a thousand miles from nowhere down narrow pot-hole filled roads I’ll never know. But they are here.
After some quick discussion on how to proceed, we start by opening a couple barrels and decide to outfit one or two coaches at a time. There is not a heckuva lot of room to spread all this stuff out, but we do what we can. We take out and line-up over 200 pairs of shoes….about the same number of baseball pants and on it goes. Remarkably we get things done in a fairly orderly fashion with very little disagreement among the coaches. We are extremely pleased…we feared the worst that there would be some yelling and arguing over gear. No such problem and Fernando and Arnaud are to thank for that. They have picked good people and these volunteer coaches are very respectful. We send the coaches off with 18 big bags, filled with equipment….bats, balls, gloves, catcher’s gear uniforms, shoes, socks and in a separate mesh bag, helmets. I wonder how these motorcycle riding coaches are gonna pull this off. Coach Benoit, who is a young man we met two years ago rides off with this 50 pound bag of gear on his handlebars and the bag of helmets tied to and dangling from his back pack. This is Benin, anything goes.
Once we get everyone done at about 2pm, Armand’s brother invites us into his home for refreshments. We have a lot more to do today, but we don’t want to hurt his feelings and neglect his hospitality, so we accept. Of course his home is very modest as well…no air conditioning, but a large fan in a window-less front room. The roof is slanted all-steel held up by wood posts that look like they were carved in the backyard. The walls are concrete and cinder block. I can see daylight through some of the small holes where the steel roof meets the cinder block. I wonder to myself what happens when it rains, which it does all the time here. The water must poor through those holes into their living room. Hopefully it doesn’t come down on their flat-screen TV or any of their electronics. When we get done Armand and his family want pictures. His daughter has a very small infant and they join in the picture. The daughter then hands me the baby and steps out to take pictures too. The child is so tiny, but I’m guessing about 6 months old. My kids weren’t this small before they were born.
One thing I’m finding here…the Beninese people LOVE to take photos. They are photo-maniacs. We take several photos with the family and we hit the road…literally. It’s miles back to the main highway and I’m sure Fernando will hit every pot hole along the way.
After a quick stop at the hotel we head out to Cocotomey, the city where Arnaud coaches his teams. Today is the final day of a weekend tournament and we get there in time for the championship game (actually they waited til we arrived, which was about 4pm). Arnaud has the field all set up as Cocotomey will take on Gbodje.
We are in the same place we were in 2016 for the first-ever baseball game in Benin. The field is in a schoolyard and Arnaud has it set up with the bases already out. We put up the portable backstop and it looks pretty good. More importantly it works.
Two players who came to Minnesota last year, lead the Cocotomey “Brewers”. Bill, who was the winning pitcher in the 3rd place game at the Woodbat tournament in Robbinsdale, pitches for the Brewers…Bill has really improved and is confident on the mound. The other player from 2016 is Hospice…he’s at shortstop, of course.
The field points out toward a wall and an opening into the nearby neighborhood about 250 feet from home plate. When Bill bats, the Gbodje Brewers left fielder plays behind the large cement road-blocks that in front of that opening. Bill obliges by ripping a double down the left field line. Later that inning a stoppage in play. Gary who is the field ump today calls time as two motorcycles go flying through center and left field, just behind our outfielders. Meanwhile about 30 or 40 kids are watching the game from the bench area of the Brewers bench. There is some real talent out here. Arnaud’s players have really improved over the last couple years. Bill and Hospice are the stars of the game that Arnaud umpires. Hospice comes in to close and slams the door in the final inning on a 5-3 Cocotomey Brewers win. some impressive defense by both teams as Gary and I scout the game for potential players to come to Minnesota this summer…we definitely have some.
Our marathon day isn’t over yet…we next have a meeting with Arnaud’s coaches…but it is getting dark so we need to move things along. We do the same things we did with Fernando’s coaches yesterday going over the manual, then teaching to scorekeep, fill out a line-up card and then how to umpire. …all of which in the dark as the sun went down on our day. The coaches improvise and get out their cell phones and use the cell phone flashlights to see and follow along in the scorebooks and line-up cards that we explained to them. As for the umpire talk, I use the occasion to make fun of Arnaud who umped today’s Brewers game. Actually he did a great job. Strike zone was a little tight for my taste, but he definitely commands the game.
We clear the field and head for our cars in the dark, and back thru the ridiculously rut-filled road that takes us back to the main road. I literally thought Fernando’s car was going to fall apart and sink into one of those potholes. Anyway, it’s another long day in the books. Tomorrow (Monday) we meet the US Ambassador at the US Embassy. Time to get some shut-eye for our meeting. Bon nuit….
Monday May 14: Day 4
Today’s the day we get to meet the U.S. Ambassador to Benin, Lucy Tamlyn. Ambassador Tamlyn has been serving in Benin for the past few years and unfortunately had to miss our meeting two years ago when we came to Benin. We get our Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes on and head to the fortress on Embassy row known as the United States Embassy. Per usual, no photos allowed so nothing to show you here, but take my word for it, the place is built to withstand serious trouble. Cement base walls reinforced with steel gate fencing surrounds the building.
We go through the security check which includes turning over our passports. You’re not allowed to bring anything into the embassy including cell phones. We knew this from 2016, so we came prepared, completely empty handed. It’s me and Gary along with coaches Fernando and Arnaud and Adam Stalczynski (from the US Peace Corps). Adam has regular work with the embassy as part of the U.S. contingency here in Benin and he made the arrangements for today’s meeting. And oh, by the way…Adam’s 10 year old son plays on one of Fernando’s teams and is thrilled to have his son playing baseball this far from home.
We are met in the security area by Amparo Garcia from the Embassy’s Public Affairs office. She walks our group through the building and up to the Ambassador’s office. The main foyer area is gorgeous and as Garcia tells us, the embassy might be the nicest building in all of Benin (it was built in 2015, so when we came here when it still had it’s “new shine”). Still, a remarkable building.
We were a few minutes early and the Ambassador was ready for us, meeting us outside her office and walking us in. She couldn’t have possibly been nicer, or more impressed with our Baseball in Benin project. She asked all the right questions in our hour-long meeting and showed genuine interest and appreciation for Baseball in Benin. She even went as far to say to us that what we are doing makes her “proud to be an American”…she said it at least twice that I remember.
Although she will have a new assignment in the coming months (leaving Benin), she offered her support and said she will make some calls on our behalf including one to the Minister of Sport in Benin to help get us a meeting with him later this week. We also asked for advice and support in getting 12 players and our coaches visas to come to the US this summer. She promised to do whatever she could as far as recommendations etc. Perfect, exactly what we were hoping for. She also mentioned that she’d like to attend a game sometime, so we plan to invite her to the games we will be running on Saturday before we leave to come home. She said that whenever she does come, she will invited folks from the Japanese Embassy, figuring that they might have interest in promoting the game of baseball to Benin. It was a very good meeting.
It’s only a short ride back to our hotel but Fernando’s brakes are struggling. Scraping like they have no pads or need new calipers…or both. So Fernando heads off to his $2 dollar an hour mechanic and literally gets a brake job for $20. That’s it, from now on I’m bringing my cars to Benin for any and all repairs.
Fernando shows up at about 2:30 to pick us up for a 3 o’clock practice in Calavi…and this is where the day’s real entertainment begins. To say that he has a firm grip on the intricacies of driving would be more than a slight overstatement.
So we’re backing out of the lot at the hotel and Fernando smashes into a car parked behind us. The driver of the car is sitting nearby in the grass and along with hotel security comes quickly to the scene of the crime. Gary checks the car and there literally is a microscopic scratch, although the bump jarred a plastic piece of the guy’s bumper. Gary snapped it back into place. Meanwhile, Fernando was talking to the driver who supposedly was calling the owner. After about 10 minutes of discussion, Fernando says we’re ready to go…..he apparently gave the driver $5 for “damages” and it was settled. Five bucks… Looks like the driver is eating out tonight. We’re guessing the owner never had a say or knowledge of the ordeal. Anyway, we’re good to go.
On our way to Calavi is a traffic signal and circle where many of the city’s on-foot, street vendors congregate. We of course have never bought anything from these walking garage sales two years ago, or this year. …But today, I break the string. A guy is selling poster-sized maps of Benin. Perfect for my son Paul who loves maps. He tells Fernando that he wants 1000 francs (2 dollars) for the map/poster. None of us has Beninese change…the guy reaches into our car and puts the poster on the dashboard trying to seal the sale, but we don’t have any money. Right then the light changes and we start moving with the map still on the dashboard…the guy literally runs alongside of the car for about 1000 feet, and around the traffic circle in ridiculously busy traffic. Finally Gary says he has 2 dollars. Fernando asks the guy if he’d take American money…he says yes, although I’m not sure he knew what he was getting. By the time Gary gets the 2-bucks out we’d rolled another 500 feet, but our map salesman managed to stay ahead of us in this Indianapolis 500 speedway disguised as a city street. Finally I reach
out the window and hand him the 2 bucks. He looks at it confused, and Fernando steps on the gas. All sales are final. Mr.Map Salesman earned his money today, that’s for sure. I’ll keep you posted on what’s for sale tomorrow.
So finally after the “car wreck” as Gary called it (in the hotel parking lot), and the street vendor incident, we make it to the practice field…Fernando pulls up along a dirt road that surrounds the park, and for some unexplained reason Fernando tries to park partially off the road and smacks right into a tree. One of the player’s moms, who loaned Fernando the car for the week, is sitting right there watching this. I mean he just plowed right into the tree. Again, no major damage cause he was going so slow but we’re not sure what he possibly could’ve been looking at. And oh yeah, the tree survived and Abdul’s mom could care less about the scratch. Tragedy #2 averted.
Fernando had been telling us that this field is much better than the sand and water trap that his players’ usually practice on at their school in Cotonou…and as far as huge water puddles are concerned he’s right. It looks like it could be a better set up, especially with the ground that literally is like a natural ag-lime. The problem is that it is as hard as concrete and filled with weeds. Kids are taking their lives into their hands trying to field ground balls here, but overall it’s a little better than the schoolyards in Cotonou. Gives you an idea of what we’re dealing with.
There are about 35 kids here today and we practice til about 6:30pm including an hour long scrimmage, trying to keep an eye out for the 11 and 12 year olds that we may pick to come to Minnesota this summer. I pitch the whole scrimmage on this scorching hot day…a little sunburn, but other than that I survive..but will I survive another car-ride
with Fernando back to the hotel. On the way back we make our first stop for gas. At an actual gas station. Nobody ever goes to gas stations in Benin (I’ve yet to witness a gas station customer in my two trips to Benin). so we pull in and the guy starts filling the tank (they pump it for you). The pump tells you how many gallons but apparently not the price. That is negotiated. I can’t believe what I’m watching. Fernando tells him to stop pumping. It ends up at about $52…roughly 3 dollars per gallon. Never a dull moment here.
Add in another 2 1/2 hour meeting at the hotel after dinner and it’s been a full day. Back at it tomorrow for more non-stop action. Je t’ai vu
Day Five: Tuesday May 15
Our first order of business today is to meet with the “sub” mayor of Calavi. We met him and his contingency of deputies a couple years ago when we were in Benin. The idea is to negotiate terms of how/when we will build a baseball field on property that they are donating to us. More on that later…
Once again we pick up Abdul’s mom who will join us for the meeting. Mrs. Abdul’s Mom as we refer to her (she speaks no English), is the head of the parent association and has been with us at all of the practices and most of the meetings so far this week. It is her vehicle that Fernando has been driving us around in and smashing into trees and cars with. What’s funny is that we seem to pick her up and drop her off at different locations. Today we get her at her house. Later we would drop her off at the hospital and an hour later she’d pop up someplace else. It’s hard to know when or where she will be, but it seems that she’s always around, and/or never too far away.
Before meeting with the sub-mayor we are invited to stop by a nearby school where some kids from Calavi are practicing. It is noon-time and I wondered out loud to Fernando why they are practicing in the middle of the day…I mean I love the idea of taking a long break from schoolwork to play baseball, but it seems unusual. Fernando tells us that their coach, Gildas, has made special arrangements with the school’s principal, to allow the kids to practice today in the schoolyard to show off their skills to me and Gary. What we come to realize, is that these folks are really dedicated.
When we arrive we find the kids warming up, playing catch across from each other in an orderly fashion. I watch some of them play and their form is textbook. Even the littlest of guys (he probably is no more than 7 years old) is pointing his glove, elbow up, steps and throws. He’s been taught really well…or has been watching You Tube videos. It’s impressive. The kids here ages range from 7 to about 14. There are about 30 kids playing, including four girls and Gildas tells us that there are at least 25 or 30 more who also play. Wow…that’s up to 60 kids…and they have skills.
A side story to this group and their coach Gildas. When we were here in 2016 Gary and I delivered a bag of equipment to Gildas in the parking lot of a city building while goats
were running around us. I remember reaching into the bag and tossing a ball to the 4 kids, and playing their first-ever game of catch. They were with Gildas that day to pick up the gear. They were putting gloves on the wrong hand (right handers trying to put the glove on the right hand) and I had to show them otherwise. They were the first four players that Gildas had recruited, none of which had EVER played baseball or even heard of it. Now this area has 60 players…and three of the original kids are still here playing (the other one had moved away). This is a tremendous success story. It started with one bag of gear and a caring coach, Gildas.
While the noon-time practice continues in the sweltering 88-degree heat, the principal and school treasurer come out to greet us and thank us for coming. Through a translation by Fernando, he tells us that he is excited to promote the game of baseball, a
new opportunity for the kids. He says that with baseball being a predominantly American game he is hopeful that this would be a good chance for the kids to learn English. He then asks if we would be willing to build his library in exchange for him building a league of schools that would play games against each other. I look at Gary then ask out loud what does he mean by “building a library”…remember this is Benin. Fernando asks him and he says he wants English books. Done deal we say without hesitation (I didn’t want to commit to a brick and mortar special wing to the school). This guy gets it. Put baseball and education together feeding off of one another. He also says that he wants to help make baseball a national sport in Benin. That’s big stuff in this part of the world where soccer is king…and queen.
After our brief informal meeting with the principal in the shade under a tree in the schoolyard, and the usual ceremonial photo session (I mean I’ve never been in so many photos in my life. Gary and I are probably the stars of Facebook and Instagram in Benin this week), I walk back out to where the kids are practicing. Their coach is hitting fly balls and ground balls to all 30 kids who are standing a hundred or so feet from him. So I introduce them to the game of 500 (you get 100 points for catching a fly ball, 50 points for catching a ground ball…and you subtract those amounts if you drop the ball…we called it $3 dollars in Cleveland, 500 in Minnesota) Either way, same game. It took about 2 minutes to explain with Arnaud translating and their coach Josue had them playing. The kids love it…and there’s some math involved cause they have to keep, add and subtract their scores. I’ve never had so much fun watching this game. About 15 or 20 minutes later we get a winner. They had a blast…so did we.
Time now to move on to our meeting with the sub mayor. It’s just a stones throw from the school. We park across the busy road from the sub mayor’s house and dash across through traffic, into a gated area and to a beautiful gazebo. There’s a large table on one side of the gazebo with a large bottle of some kind of beverage in it….the bottle is about
the size of a large gas can. The sub-mayor is there to greet us (me Gary, Fernando, Arnaud and of course Mrs. Abdul’s mom in our contingency). He (along with a couple of his deputies) don’t speak a lick of English, so we again depend on Fernando and Arnaud to translate. After a few greetings we learn that the land that they planned to donate to us two years ago now has a price tag of $60 thousand dollars. Apparently there are plans to put an airport on or near the land, so the donation is not going to happen. That’s a deal breaker for us. The more I think about it, the more I think that the airport story is a crock, and that they think we have deep pockets to make this happen. We tell them that we want to build a field where national tournaments and championships can be played, basically saying that we will look elsewhere if they’re not interested. I do ask him if they have another plot that they could donate and he basically says maybe. End of meeting…they do offer a drink out of the large bottle which apparently has “Benin whiskey” in it. I’m out, but Gary braves it and says it’s good. Cest bon.
We run back across the highway to our car and we’re on our way out. Somewhere along the way on our way back to the hotel in Cotonou we drop off Mrs Abdul’s mom. No worries, I’m sure she’ll pop up again. We get back to the hotel at 2:45 and grab some Cokes and catch up on any emails. Good news has come in. U.S. Ambassador Tamlyn has made an inquiry for us to the Minister of Sport about a Friday meeting. We need to provide them with more information, but the Ambassador comes through as we eventually get confirmation that we will have that meeting on Friday.
Time to climb back into the car and head to Fernando’s practice and back to Calavi..another 30-40 minutes in traffic in this vehicle which has seen better days. Speaking of which, I have never seen so many broken down cars in my life. Everywhere we go along the sides of the road, it’s broken down cars and trucks. Good thing mechanics work for cheap here or nobody would ever own a car. Fernando needs to stop at his house to change out of his dress clothes and into his Indians hat and shirt. I go into the house with him to grab the cooler and some bottles of water and as I walk into the living room, who is sitting there? Mrs. Abdul’s mom. How the heck did she get there? We left her in Calavi on the side of the road without a vehicle about 2 hours ago. Like I said earlier, she just keeps appearing. While I’m waiting for Fernando to dress I take some photos of his house and out the back balcony where you can hear rooster’s crowing and loud Muslim chanting. Kind of eerie sounding. Mrs Abdul’s mom joins us for the ride…but about halfway to the field in Calavi, we drop her off at some street corner. No worries, she’ll be back. She shows up at practice (via motorcycle taxi) about 45 minutes later.
When we pull up to practice (Fernando manages to avoid smashing into the tree today), the kids are playing a game/scrimmage. Perfect…this is sandlot baseball as we knew it as kids and like you see in the movie Sandlot. Gary and a couple of the kids and coaches quickly put up the portable backstop while the game continues. We get a chance to see a fair number of the 11 and 12 year olds pitch who possibly could come to Minnesota this summer. It is impressive. They can really throw. Wally Sr. will do more tweaking than teaching with this group when they come.
The game/scrimmage goes on til just about dark, around 7pm (because of Benin’s location near the equator, the sun sets at about 7pm every night year round). This is a blast. Gary and I just observed…a little kibitzing and lots of photos…but this is what baseball is all about. Kids playing, running the bases, chasing baseballs everywhere and having fun. Our great game is taking hold here and this is all the proof I needed. We have started something that is catching on and the kids and coaches are running with it. We climb back into the car and head for the hotel. Should be an interesting ride in the dark. One of the coaches and a few players are on bikes, riding on the same motorcycle infested roads that we are using. But that’s how they do things here in Benin. Their dedication to playing baseball is off the charts.
Did I mention that Gary has been practicing and using his version of French all week? He took some kind of Berlitz class on line the last several weeks and now thinks he’s Charles De Galle or Louie Labeau. Anyway, I’m glad he didn’t break it out at any of our meetings today. I’m worried he’s going to say something that’s misinterpreted and land us at the bottom of the Cotonou River.
See you tomorrow, where among other things we will have a meeting with the president of the Benin Olympic committee.
Day 6: Wednesday May 16
As we start out today I keep telling Gary that our story in Africa keeps writing itself. Today is no exception. So per usual, we come out of our hotel room to head down for breakfast and we are greeted in the hall by Fernando…and seconds later guess who pops out of the elevator behind him? Of course, it’s Mrs. Abdul’s mom in a long formal African dress (see Day 5 blog entry for further explanation). She’s all set for popping in and out of our lives again today.
After breakfast we head out to meet with the president of the Benin National Olympic Committee. He has a keen interest in Baseball in Benin as baseball returns to the Summer Games in 2020. We tell him that in 2028 when the Games are in Los Angeles, Benin should have enough quality developed players that they should be able to field a team. He seemed excited about the prospect and offered to help us in any way he could. We invited him to our games on Saturday, but he politely declined. So much for helping us….but it was good for us to discuss long term goals, and the Olympics in 2028 would be one. That would be quite a feat for a country that just got introduced to the game in 2011.
Our next stop is to visit the parents of Josue Acakpo. Josue was one of the 12 kids that we brought to Minnesota back in 2016 to compete in our Wood Bat tournament. On March 18th of this year, after a year-long illness, Josue died at the age of 14.
Our group got to Josue’s home in Cotonou shortly after noon where we were greeted by his mother, father and 17 year old brother. Josue’s family lives in a very small shanty-type home and they obviously have extremely limited means. A small refrigerator in a kitchen that is actually part of the living room where there was a small case of small water bottles that they brought out for us to drink. By looking around I got the impression that they could barely afford the water bottles and that they made a special effort so that they had something for us. The heat in the house was sweltering, so even though the water was warm, we needed it.
On top of the TV is a shrine for Josue. Photos of him playing baseball in Minnesota, the trophy that he won in our tournament and a photo book that we presented him when he and his teammates left Minnesota…and up on the wall above the TV, his “bronze” medal his team won in our tournament. It was a heart wrenching scene. His father told us that all Josue wanted to do is play baseball. Gary presented Josue’s mother with a necklace
with an inscription that had his jersey #3, and said “Josue, in our hearts forever.” After getting the necklace, his mother left the room, I presume to cry. I could hardly hold back my tears. Josue’s father (who looks just like Josue), told us that what happened was God’s will and that they were honored to host us. He also said that our visit today to pay our respects was helping them heal. Such unbelievably kind and humble people living in horrendous poverty and in the midst of tragically losing their 14 year old son. It’s just sad.
We then went outside for photos and that seemed to help lighten the atmosphere. We also learned that Josue’s brother Timothy is a baseball player and will be playing in the game that we are hosting on Saturday for kids 13 and up. Josue’s father said he will attend…more healing and I am glad we are a part of it.
We are now heading back to the hotel to get out of our monkey suits and into baseball practice clothes. It’s going to be ridiculously hot on the fields today. When we get to our room I check my email and it’s a note from US Ambassador Lucy Tamlyn. She confirmed that she will be at the 10am game on Saturday for Little Leaguers and she is bringing the Japanese Ambassador as well. Great news! Now we start putting the wheels in motion to get a tent and chairs for our game on Saturday so that people who attend are comfortable.
After about an hour respite at the hotel we hit the road (with Mrs. Abdul’s mom in tow), headed for Arnaud’s practice about 10 minutes away from his regular spot in Cocotomey. About three quarters of the way there Fernando pulls off the road to get directions to the field. That’s where Mrs. Abdul’s mom decides to hop out. I’m sure we’ll see her again…It’s kinda like “Where’s Waldo.”
We arrive at the field after driving through some of the worst roads I have ever seen or even heard of…they are so full of holes, hills and puddles it’s unbelievable. The field is located adjacent to a school and the ground is basically beach sand. Tough to do anything groundball wise, but we manage. There are about 15 kids there ready to go at 3pm and we begin practice. Our main goal is to look at the 11 and 12 year olds to see if any are
going to be talented enough to compete in our tournament in Minnesota. Eventually there are about 30-35 kids at practice as they arrive on their parents motorcycles and other means. Most of the kids however, are older…13 and up, and many of them are Fernando’s team that came to Minnesota…Fidele, Thomas, Joel and Cici are all there. This is not close to their homes in Cotonou. We are flabbergasted to see them so far from home (about 30 minutes). We did see at least one 12 year old that should make the cut, he can pitch , field and hit…perfect, but we need more. We also are looking to come up with several kids to play in the Little League aged game on Saturday that the Ambassadors will be attending. We want to put on a good show.
As we end practice at about 5pm we have to hustle as we have a 6pm appointment back in Cotonou with a person they call the “Perfect”. Basically he is the right hand man to the President of Benin. Getting this meeting is a big coup for Fernando who has been trying to get this meeting for literally years.
This is where today’s story gets goofy. So we are told that we need to be there at 6pm sharp…no exceptions, or we lose the appointment. We actually arrive at about 5:40, so we are plenty early. By the way, guess who showed up out of nowhere?…yep it was MAM (Mrs. Abdul’s Mom). We are then escorted into a waiting room that is warm, muggy and smells of perspiration. There’s a ceiling fan blowing but the air conditioner is not on. The room has a high ceiling and the walls are covered by big heavy drapes. There is a photo of the President of Benin on one of the non-draped walls. There are about 6 or 7 people already in the room waiting. Welcome to the Banana Republic of Benin.
At about 6:30 they finally call us in. So much for 6pm sharp. I am nervous about the timing because we have a meeting with Amporo from the US Embassy at 7:30. As we head into the “perfect’s” office we are asked to leave our cell phones in a basket. I just have a camera, and apparently that’s ok. I assume that they just don’t want phones ringing and people not paying attention while in this meeting. Makes sense, I guess.
As we enter the “Perfect’s” office he is a large bald man dressed in a green army uniform. The walls in his office are adorned by photos of the President of Benin and of himself, in uniform. The “Perfect” is sitting behind a large desk and asks us to sit down. He then shakes Gary and my hands and then immediately proceeds to take a call on his cell phone. He has a wireless ear piece/blue tooth device and is talking very loud while we all sit and watch him talk. This goes on for about 10 minutes. Finally he hangs up and then starts talking to one of his assistants who is behind us and who has come into the room. A few moments later his phone rings again and he’s back on the horn. What in the world?
We wait a few more minutes before he finally breaks away from his cell phone to talk to us. He doesn’t speak any English so Fernando is again called into duty to interpret. One of Fernando’s coaches Moum Barack, introduces our delegation and explains our mission. Moum Barack is a dominating figure himself and is very sure of himself. He politely does his speaking while standing. Moments later the Perfect is back on the phone again. It’s getting to the point of ridiculous. They had us leave our phones in the hall and he’s on his cell basically the entire time. Finally we get his attention after the most recent call and after two other female assistants come into the room and have him sign papers. This guy is a cross between Kernel Klink and Henry Blake with all these people running at is beckon call.
Gary then is officially given the floor to talk and after we explain what the game of baseball is, he tells us that he has a Minnesota Twins hat. What? Are you kidding? Apparently he has a friend who lives in the Twin Cities who gave him a hat. Gary then (after yet another interruption by one of his stooges) invites him to come to Minnesota for this year’s Wood Bat Tournament. The Perfect says that there is a national holiday in Benin on August 1st so he can’t come. I figure he’s just trying to nicely decline. I then tell him that the tournament runs from Aug 2nd through the 5th, and I jokingly say “you could still make it for part of the tournament.” Then to our amazement, he says yes. I look at Fernando for confirmation and he says yes, that this guy is coming to Robbinsdale. We can’t believe it. Moments later his press secretary, sitting behind me, asks if we would pay for his plane ticket. I politely and laughingly say no. The Perfect says he’s coming anyway. It’s about as weird as it gets. I guess he was just trying to save the Benin government a few bucks and figured it was worth asking. So, it’s settled, he’s coming on August 3rd to Minnesota. Wow.
It’s photo time now, and the story gets even better. So we all start getting up out of our chairs for a photo and the “Perfect” swings his chair to his right. He grabs out from behind his desk an army hat. Then one of his assistants comes around the desk and gets on his knees. It’s time to shine the “Perfect’s” boots. Oh my god…I am speechless. Welcome to Benin. Moments later the multitude of photos and poses begins and the “Perfect” eats it up. He actually seems like a nice guy with a funny personality, but lord I just can’t wrap my head around all the other stuff. As we march out the door I say “see you in August”. He replies, he’ll be there. As we’re walking out the door I ask Gary, “What just happened in there?” Who knows. All I know is that this character dressed up like Idi Amin is coming to our tournament.
Of course the day isn’t quite done yet. We have to rush back to the hotel to meet Amparo from the US Embassy and we are about 10 minutes late…fortunately she is there, patiently waiting for us. She thinks nothing of the tardiness, saying that 10 minutes is nothing in Benin. How right she is. We give her a couple of Baseball in Benin t-shirts for her and the Ambassador, a couple of Baseball in Benin “souvenir” lapel pins and several copies of the sports magazine we publish, Minnesota Score. We give her the issue that has a large feature on Baseball in Benin. I give her a few extras for the Library at the Embassy. She tells us that they’re always looking for English publications for Beninese to read and especially sports since it helps peek their interest. She also tells us that it looks like several folks who work at the US Embassy will be at the game on Saturday. Everyone is looking forward to it.
I forgot to mention…we experience our first power outage early Wednesday morning. Just after I finished Tuesday’s blog. In 2016 there were 3 to 5 power outages per day, and for no apparent reason. Today, our first of the trip. Things are improving here in Benin. For now, it’s on to Thursday….night all…bon nuit
Day Seven: Thursday May 17
It’s been a week since we left home and today we wake up early to the sounds of a thunderstorm. With the rain pounding the ground below us (we’re on the 3rd floor of our hotel) we watc h and wonder what it’s going to do to the roads around Cotonou that already have severe problems. To no one’s surprise there is urban flooding in many spots with knee deep water on some streets. The rain subsides after about an hour, but the damage has been done.
We get off to a flying start. A motorcyclist cuts in front of us and Fernando smacks into him. The guy’s hand caught the brunt of it as it got pinched between the bike and our car. The cyclist kind of shakes his hand to shake off the pain and drives away. If this happened in the U.S. there would be police reports and lawyers involved. Here, the guy shakes off the pain and drives away. For Fernando however, is the tri-fecta and his first moving object. You’ll remember that earlier this week he backed into a parked car and ran into a tree. It was going to be that kind of morning.
We are headed to Calavi this morning to meet with their mayor. We met him two years ago on our trip in 2016 and it was fairly entertaining. I asked Gary last night if we should even bother with this meeting since we were told a couple days ago by the sub-mayor that we now have to pay $60,000 for the land that two years ago they were going to give us. We have no intention or ability to spend that kind of money on the land and so to me it seemed like a trip we could do without. Gary agrees…however Fernando says we could ask the mayor if they have any other land in Calavi that they would be willing to donate. We begrudgingly agree to keep the appointment. We are also scheduled to meet with the director of sports for the city of Cotonou shortly after noon, so it’s going to be a busy day.
We hit the road at about 9:30am and it’s an eerie scene on the streets. Not as many motorcycles as usual because of the rain. The vendors who stalk you at the stoplights in town are now cleverly selling umbrellas and windshield wipers. These car to car salespeople have it all figured out. As I mentioned earlier parts of the main road are under water. It rained so hard so fast that the storm sewers couldn’t handle all the water so it ends up making the streets look like shallow rivers. Fernando however is undeterred and splashes his way through getting us to the mayor’s office at about 10:10. So in Benin, we are considered on time…maybe even early.
We walk into the building and up some stairs to the reception area where they direct us into a waiting room. Exactly as I remember it from two years ago. Ceiling fans twisting in a small hot room with an old broken down TV and a couple of people already waiting. So, we take a seat and begin our wait for the Mayor. Of course after a few minutes we are joined by Mrs. Abdul’s Mom. She once again is dressed to the max wearing another African design dress. It’s Fernando, me, Gary and MAM…then after a few minutes Moum Barack joins us and eventually Gildas.
We continue to wait…it’s now 10:30, then 11am, then 11:30. I am anxious to move on as we wait. I think folks are getting irritated with me, but I’m the only one willing to say it. I tell Fernando that at noon, we’re gonna just leave. Fernando heads out and tells the Mayor’s staff of our intention. He finds out that the Mayor is in a different part of the building meeting a Russian delegation. Maybe they are plotting to fix Benin’s next election? Who knows…in any case the mayor sends word that he will meet with us in a few minutes. At about 11:57 we get word that the Mayor is ready to see us. We head out and we are joined by Arnaud and his group. Into the Mayor’s office we go, our group of nine. We take a few minutes to pull up chairs around a seating area with the Mayor. This guy is a real piece of work. Wearing outrageously expensive bling and watch. Gary (Mr Optician) tells me that the Mayor’s glasses are no Dollar Tree specials either.
He begins talking to us saying that he apologizes for keeping us waiting and that he was unaware of the meeting….which is bull. Fernando and Moum Barack had received confirmation of the meeting earlier this week. He then says in English that he could meet with us at another time, some other day. He gets up and the meeting is over. We are all sitting there in stunned silence. He drags us all in there to tell us that he can’t meet with us because he’s playing footsie with the Russians? Our “meeting” literally lasted about 2 minutes. We waited 2 hours and got 2 minutes of this joker’s time. Rest assured that he’s probably on the take at every opportunity including now with some of the worst people on earth, the Russian government. No surprise though. They probably spotted him from a million miles away. Of course I’m just guessing all of this, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. We get back into the car and head back to Cotonou to meet with the city’s director of athletics. Hopefully that meeting will go better.
MAM jumps into the car with us ready for another meeting and eventually another disappearing act. As we pull into the parking lot for the Cotonou athletic director it is completely flooded. Ankle to knee deep water everywhere. Fernando has to pull up to an
opening in a fence where we literally have to jump or take a large step to get onto dry land. Gonna be interesting for MAM, but we all make it. We have a good meeting with a young man and his assistant. They seem genuinely interested in baseball and helping us promote it in the high schools. That will be a huge help because right now we’re really only focused on baseball for kids up to the age of 16…we could use some support and continuation in the schools. Thankfully this is our last meeting of the day, but it was a good one.
We now are headed back to the hotel to change our clothes and take a break. On the way we drop off MAM at another random location next to a slew of sidewalk vendors (those are everywhere by the way). I never have any idea where we are dropping her or how she gets to the next location. That’s what makes it fun I guess. No time for lunch today so Gary pulls out the Pop Tarts and other snacks when we get to our hotel room. We have a 3pm practice back in Calavi that we need to get to. We end up leaving at about 2:45pm, so we’re going to be late. In addition Fernando announces that he needs to stop at home to change into his coaching clothes. Thank goodness we’re in Benin. Nobody else in the U.S. would put up with this constant tardiness.
The “Road to Calavi” is jam packed with cars, motorcycles and water from the rain earlier today. The smell of exhaust fumes is heavy today because of the humid air, low clouds and lack of a breeze. I would hate to live in Beijing and put up with something like this every day….So to avoid this massive traffic jam Fernando takes some side roads. Probably not a great choice today. The rain from the morning made many of the side streets nearly impassable. After about another 45 minutes of winding down side-street after side-street we make it to practice…it’s after 4pm and we’re already tired. The good news is that it’s time for baseball and the kids, which makes it all worth while.
When we get to the field in Calavi we are greeted by Brittany. She lives in Minnesota and is the one who helped us arrange for the delivery of the 13 barrels of equipment that we handed out this past Sunday. She also has offered her home to us (she and her fiance have a place in Benin) on this coming Sunday as we have to check out of our hotel by noon and our flight doesn’t leave til 11pm. That’s good news. It gives us a place to call home for the day Sunday.
At first there are only about 8 or 9 kids at practice. The good news is that most of these 8 or 9 are the best 12 year olds in Benin. We saw them pitch in a scrimmage on Tuesday, today we’ll take BP and watch them hit. We are trying to find 12 players out of all of the players that we have playing, to come to the U.S. in July/August. Interestingly, the kids in this group are all bigger than most average 12 year olds in Benin. Fernando explains that their living conditions are much better than the rest and that they eat better and probably eat more because their families can afford it. At this age, size matters in baseball so this is a good thing. Fernando throws batting practice while Gary and I watch and kibitz. Eventually more kids arrive (including of course three of the regulars from the 2016 team, Fidele, Joel and Cici). This is a strong group. There are roughly 10 kids here today that we watch that could be possibles for the U.S. trip. Some are sure things. I then hit some infield and outfield and we go til about 6:30. Good workout and Gary and I have a good idea of who can play and who can’t. Thursday evening is another adventure in the car as we head to Alban’s family’s house for dinner. Alban is the person who ignited the Baseball in Benin project some 8 years ago when he met Gary. Alban’s sister works at the U.S. Embassy and she is waiting for us as we roll up some time after 8pm as a result of battling traffic and bad side-roads. Finally, we get a home cooked meal and a comfortable night at their family home.
One more observation about today’s practice…As practice ended I dug into my bag and handed out candy to the kids that I brought from home. “Smarties”…I love Smarties and the kids in an orderly fashion each get a package. Of course Fidele tries to sneak an extra one from me. But overall, nothing like two years ago where anytime we had something to give away we’d get mobbed. This was much better, far more orderly. While I’m doing this Gary has his hands full with taking equipment and uniform requests from Fernando’s coaches….Never a dull moment.
No practices tomorrow because we have a very important meeting with the Minister of Sports at 3pm, so this is the last time we’ll see the kids before Saturday’s games. Friday morning will be a time to catch up on some rest. I think I’ll start that process right now.
Day 8: Friday May 18
Finally, a chance to sleep in today…and I needed it. Something I ate on Thursday didn’t sit well…Eating here is tricky, but for the most part we’ve done pretty well. You have to stay away from fruits and vegetables that don’t come in a shell…like tomatoes, or lettuce or apples. Anything that could’ve been washed in water out of the tap is probably going to have bacteria that most Americans can’t handle. So we eat lots of pizza, chicken, fish and drink bottles of Coke everywhere we go. It’s about the only time Gary and I ever drink pop, but as Gary says, it’s better than being sick. Most restaurants will serve you Coke in a bottle and bring ice in a glass. Of course we have to refuse the ice cause that’s going to be made from tap water. Again, we’ve been careful and have for the most part averted any health issues.
After an extremely long day Thursday, it was good to catch up on my sleep today. Gary, of course was up and atom, eating breakfast and meeting with Arnaud, Ralph and their treasurer. I haven’t mentioned Ralph earlier, but he’s been part of our gang bopping from one meeting to the next all week. Ralph is a clothes and jewelry designer here in
Benin and he dresses like it, cutting edge…just like me and Gary in our shorts and t-shirts. Ralph is a tall slender gentleman who is the president of Arnaud’s baseball organization. Gary calls him Ralph Lauren.
Gary, Ralph and company are in the lobby of the hotel planning out the details of Saturday’s double header of games that we have scheduled. It’s going to be a huge deal with US Ambassador Lucy Tamlyn and the Japanese Ambassador among the dignitaries coming. A tent, chairs, P.A system and more need to be rented. Oh yeah, and you have to pay for the media to come. So we’ll shell out about $300 for TV, Radio and print coverage. I suggest that the Minnesota Score would do it for $290 but Arnaud insists that people in Benin don’t read the Minnesota Score or listen to our radio show. I’m both insulted and surprised. Arnaud takes me seriously, but I think he’s starting to learn
We then find out that the field in Cocotomey on which we planned to play the Little League game is not available Saturday, so everything is moving to Calavi where we will play the game for the 13-17 year olds….So this actually works out. We don’t have to do two games in two different places. The Little League game will be at 10am on Saturday…then at about 3pm the older kids will play. I gladly played sick up in our room while these guys figured things out.
Today’s first meeting is supposed to be at 3pm with the Minister of Sport. This is the person who basically decides what sports the Benin government will officially recognize, so this is a big deal. However, just after 11am I get a call and they need to move up our meeting to 1:30 this afternoon. No problem, but there goes my shopping day. That will have to wait. So at 1:30 we bring our whole dog and pony show to the Minister of Sport’s
offices. It’s a fairly nondescript building, like most government buildings. But after a half dozen meetings this week, the formula is exactly the same. We sit in a waiting area (actually only waited about 5 minutes today unlike our marathon wait Thursday for the Emperor of Calavi). After the waiting area you get marched into an office with couches and chairs around the perimeter. Mrs Abdul’s Mom pops up out of nowhere (MAM), Moum Barack (today dressed in an all-white traditional African gown) introduces all of us…Whoever we’re meeting with talks…Gary talks…I chime in. Fernando and Arnaud interpret because most of the people we meet with don’t speak English. We take pictures at the end, and we leave. We end up with three of these meetings today, deja vu all over again.
The Minister of Sport is a young man probably in his early 30’s at most and he does speak English, so that’s a plus right there. He already knows about the 2016 venture when we brought 12 kids to Minnesota to play baseball. He was actually part of the official greeting party when the kids returned to Benin. He likes what we are doing and says he’s on board with helping us establish a federation. He also says that adding new sports is one of his priorities, and we fit the bill perfectly. This is big news as Fernando and Arnaud have been trying to make this happen for the last couple of years. I also think it has a lot to do with the call from Ambassador Tamlyn to set this meeting up. He also says that the government is able to help us with shipping. That’s our number one problem with establishing the sport here…the cost of shipping baseball equipment. It’s a very good meeting.
So now it’s on to meet the Benin government Sports Finance director …Gary, Fernando and I hustle to the car so we can get rolling. Just as we’re about to pull away Moum Barack chases us down and Fernando rolls down the window. Moum Barack is a big guy…probably 6’3″, bald and very imposing looking. Gary and I call him “The Commander.” He tells Fernando in no uncertain terms that we need to come back into the building for a meeting (an unscheduled one) with the Director of the Sports. This is the hands on guy. The Minister is the figure head, this guy does all the day to day stuff. I’m actually glad that this one happened. The director looks like an athlete. Probably in his mid to late 40’s and was a World Cup Soccer ref on two different occasions. He tells us that he wants to learn more about baseball, and he actually wants to coach his own team. We tell Fernando he has a new student. More photos follow, of course and we’re out.
We get back to the car and off we go to the Finance director’s offices. Arnaud, Ralph Lauren and his treasurer; MAM, Moum Barack and Gildas; me, Gary and Fernando. We really are a dog and pony show. So here it is…our final meeting of the week (I hope). We take a rickety elevator that’s the size of a phone booth up four floors. It will have to make two trips cause there are 9 of us. It dumps us into an equally narrow hallway and where we have to ring a doorbell to get in. Nobody answers. Moum Barack then leaves to find out where we need to be. Believe me when I say it, Moum Barack means business. He of course returns a few minutes later and we’re in. It’s not the Finance director, but his deputy assistant. That’s ok. We just want to let them know who we are. After all, these guys are the ones who write the checks. After a short meeting and more pictures, we are finally finished with meetings. Thank God.
MAM climbs into the car with us and we are off to the hotel to change out of our monkey suits and into our baseball clothes for Arnaud’s practice. Of course on the way, we drop off MAM at some stoplight and she steps out into traffic and takes off. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason on where we drop her off or pick her up. Never ceases to amaze me. And boy is she a talker…and I’m not kidding…Of course I don’t understand anything she says as she speaks the local language of Fon. BAH, BAH, BAH, BAH, BAH BAH,…loud and fast. I have absolutely no clue what the hell she’s talking about. Oh well…she’s dedicated and a very nice lady. Plus it’s entertaining to guess where we’ll see her next.
We are now scurrying to get to Arnaud’s practice so we can see the remainder of the 12 year olds that he has that we didn’t see on Wednesday. Fernando adds another notch on his steering wheel as he smacks into another motorcyclist near one of the stoplights
along the way. The woman gets bumped forward, but just keeps going, no problem. If you’re counting, that’s now 4 “car wrecks” for Fernando this week…two moving, two stationary. At the same intersection we get the biggest, longest parade of car to car salespeople we’ve seen all week. Everything from a Scrabble game, to flash drives, to pineapples, to coffee pots, wall clocks, soccer balls etc etc etc. It’ endless. But this was a new one today. There was a guy selling a beautiful puppy. I was too slow with my camera as he walked past us. Just when I think I’ve seen it all in Benin, I see something new.
We get to practice at about 5:15pm and Arnaud has things rolling. About 20 older kids on one side of the school yard, and about ten 12-year olds with him near where we parked. We only get half of the school yard because a large group of kids are playing soccer. They actually have the field butted up against our infield. As soccer balls come flying into our practice, and baseballs into their game, I ask Arnaud to ask them to go north and south instead of east and west and they do. Not sure why they didn’t do that in the first place. There is much more room that way. Oh well, they’re soccer players, how smart can they be?
Gary and I spend about and hour evaluating Arnaud’s 12 year olds. I pitch and hit grounders and Gary jots down evaluations. There’s one kid we hadn’t seen before that’s a sure-fire candidate to come to Minnesota. So total, there are two bigger kids that we think are no-brainers and a couple others that we’ll put into the mix, although the other two are kinda small. No matter, we’ll get another look in the game on Saturday. At the end of practice I hand out the rest of the Smarties Candies that I had, and it was just enough. We get done and it’s starting to get dark…it’s 7pm….One note about being out after dark in Benin. I think most Americans would think it’s dangerous, and I’m sure there are places that we shouldn’t be, but the street vendors are there late…I mean 10pm, 11pm and they’re still out. So are some of the car to car sales guys. New experience tonight, a guy came up and cleaned our windshields as we waited at a stoplight. Of course he wanted to be paid, but Fernando said we didn’t order the cleaning, so he just steps on the gas and we’re outta here. So am I….Tomorrow is game-day. Should be fun.
Until then…Au Revoir
Day 9: Saurday May 19
It’s game day, and much of the planning we did the last couple of days comes to a head today as we have two games planned…one for 12 year old players in the morning at 10am and one at 4pm for players aged 13-17. As it turns out we probably should’ve scheduled them just the opposite (for better baseball) as we are expecting several dignitaries including the US Ambassador to Benin Lucy Tamlyn, the Japanese Ambassador and other embassy staff members from both delegations.
We roll out early today so we can get to the field in plenty of time, so we are on the road with Fernando by 8:30am. It’s a gorgeous sunny day with just a few puffy clouds…which means we’re going to boil on the field. However Moum Barack is supposed to have a tent rented and set up so our guests and whoever else, can be in the shade.
We pull up at 9am and Fernando takes around the back side of the field. Gary asks him why…when we get to the field we find out. They are setting up the tent completely kitty-corner to where we’ve practiced and played all week. It doesn’t look like a good plan as only half of the tented area will be in the shade and the infield is loaded with weeds. Of
course nobody brings a rake or a shovel. Gary is convinced that there aren’t any anywhere on the African continent. Someone did bring a big machete looking thing that you would use to whack down large weeds in the jungle I guess. On top of that, the kids are in a patch of weeds about 20 feet behind home plate whacking and picking weeds. No need for that when we have a field that needs help, not a weed patch that’s 20-30 feet out of play. Our dignitary guests are going to be here shortly and the roof of the tent is still being constructed…ugh
We still have to divide the teams up as Arnaud’s group only has 8 kids and Fernando has about 15…so we divide the teams in two and finally hand out the jerseys. It will be the Phillies and the Blue Jays in an interleague battle. A few of Arnaud’s players are coming by bus, and just before 10am they finally arrive and we put them on the two teams.
The PA system is some monstrous speakers that you’d see at a rock concert and the minute they get it set up, the African music begins blaring from here to Nigeria and back. Gary scrounges up some cement mix that we use for the baselines, and the field is ready to go… We need to do the national anthems, but nobody has them on their ipods. So I foolishly volunteer, doing my best Rosie Odonnell/Reader’s Digest version of the Star Spangled Banner, (apparently I skipped a verse). Then it’s Moum Barack on vocals for the Beninese anthem. The director of Sports for the Benin federal government is there and he throws out the first pitch. We’re all set to play ball…or so I thought.
It’s already about 10:30am and Ampora from the US Embassy staff tells me how impressed she is that we’re getting through this without a bunch of speeches. It happens all the time she says. Moments later her prediction comes true. As hard as we tried to get things rolling, Moum Barack put an end to it. He grabs the wireless microphone and basically gives the same speech I’ve heard about 15 times this week everywhere from the US Embassy to the new Russian envoy-slash-Calavi mayor’s office. Of course I don’t
understand a word he’s saying, but believe me, I’ve heard it before. Then it’s our friend Ralph “Lauren” on behalf of “Real” Baseball in Benin, for at least 10 minutes, although it seemed much longer…Now we’re done. Nope, MAM grabs the microphone and talks for another 4 or 5 minutes. Now we can start…wait a minute. The media is there to broadcast an official presentation by another government official. I’m losing my mind. It just won’t end. We need to play baseball before I get heat stroke. The high today would be 88 degrees, but with the humidity it felt more like 108. It was scorching hot.
Finally we’re underway. The Blue Jays are in the field first…but their starting pitcher Ulrich, doesn’t have his glove. So no pitcher is warming up. This is absolute torture for me. It’s now almost 10:50am and we haven’t even thrown a warm-up pitch yet. I have to keep telling myself (and Gary) it’s Africa, and that’s how things go here. Nothing is easy. So through Arnaud as interpreter, we tell the Blue Jays coach to pitch someone else. So they pick another boy, Assys (pronounced ah-CEASE). Assys throws hard, but he only gets a couple warm-up pitches, so this could be ugly. And it is…he walks the first three batters to load the bases. Meanwhile a man riding a white horse passes by on the road behind left field. Coach then pulls Assys and goes back to Ulrich who has since found his glove. Ulrich struggles too, but only gives up one run…and the Phillies led 1-0.
In the bottom of the first the Jays answer with three runs, mostly on walks and a nice hit by Ulrich. Arnaud is umping and he has a very tight zone…but these kids struggle with it. Eventually both teams settle in and the Phillies, coached by Fernando, go on to win 8-5. It was hard to do much scouting because everything seemed like a walk or a strikout. Oh well…Cest la vi.
Gary and I hand out candy to the kids afterwards and it’s time for a break. And back into the picture comes Mrs. Abdul’s Mom. She apparently has made lunch for us and all of the coaches…the food is stored in the back of Fernando’s vehicle and along with MAM, we take off. I figured maybe we;re going to a park or something for a coaches picnic, although I have no idea why I would think that. I haven’t seen a neighborhood park anywhere in Benin in the two times I’ve been here. I don’t think they exist.
Just about a half mile down a dirt road we turn in and stop by a nice look building with a beautiful wall around it. Looks nice…as we walk through the gate and are greeted by the door workers, was a beautiful swimming pool, and a nice outdoor eating area. Perfect…this will be great…except it got better. They escort me, Gary and Fernando indoors to a very nice bar area with formal table set up. That’s where we will eat while
the enlisted men eat outside. It’s air conditioned, a TV is going and they have somewhere I can plug in and charge my camera. It’s exactly what we needed after bearing the heat for the past 4 hours.
MAM and a couple helpers bring all of the home made food that she cooked and served us…It’s chicken, rice and a vegetable concoction. Let me tell you something, MAM has her act together. She then gets $60 from Gary to walk the players to a nearby street vendor and feed about 60 baseball players. As it turns out it wouldn’t be enough. As we’re driving back to the field from this place with the pool and AC, she stops us and pokes her head in the car window and fills our ear….not angrily, just loud and African (she was speaking Fon again). By the way, how did she get there? Anyway, she needs another $20. Gary hands her the money and we’re off back to the field for Game 2. Personally, I’d like to go back to the lunch-place and go for a swim.
The fun part about Game 2 will be watching the boys who came to Minnesota two years ago play. In all, 9 of them are hear today. Fidele (of course), Thomas, Isaac, CC, Aime, Carlos, Joel, Hospice and Bill. Hospice and Bill play for Arnaud and the rest play for Fernando. In the top of the first inning, Hospice would rip a double down the left field line to bring home what would be the only run of the game for his team (the Athletics). Again Fernando’s team has too much talent. They win 8-1.
A couple of “only in Benin” side notes on this one…After the bottom of the 2nd inning, with the African music blaring, this weird trio of dancers starts dancing down the 3rd baseline. It’s a woman and two men, dressed in some funky African clothes with painted faces. Fernando blows a nut and yells for them to get off the field. I had no idea what was going on. Turns out that Moum Barack hired them to come and entertain…Nobody wants to battle Moum Barack so we let them do their thing during the next half inning break…somewhat inappropriate for a youth baseball game, but whatever…again remember, we are in Africa.. Later on I hand them my mp3 player and have him play a couple Michael Jackson songs between innings…Much better…and no weird dancers…just me.
The media gets paid to show up to things like this. We shelled out $300 for TV, Radio and print coverage. They interview the Ambassadors, Fernando, me and a few others (Gary handed this duty to me. In exchange I let him talk at all the government meetings) Actually the reporter asked me questions in English, although he admittedly didn’t completely understand my answers so he had Arnaud interpret them.
Not only is Arnaud and interpreter, he is also the umpire for this game as well and he occasionally would yell coaching instructions to his players and coaches. Again, Fernando is not happy. “He can’t coach and umpire” Fernando yells to me. I ask him if he wants to ump…I got no answer. I told Fernando that this is probably a good lesson on why you need to recruit and train impartial umps. Actually, Arnaud calls a great game. He is probably honest to a fault.
One final side note…As you know if you’ve been following this blog, one of the players from the 2016 team that came to Minnesota, Josue, died a couple months ago at the age of 14. His father was among the guests/fans today to watch Josue’s older brother Timothy play in this second game. Timothy is 17 years old. It was good to see them at the game, enjoying baseball in Josue’s memory.
After the game ended another slew of pictures before MAM called Gary and I over for a special presentation from the parents. They gave each of us a beautiful hand carved
wooden trophy as their sign of appreciation for our help in bringing baseball to Benin. We tell them that it’s been our pleasure. We bid our goodbyes to all the kids and parents and we are off, beeping and waving to the crowd of players who were waiting for their bus to go home. We will see several of them in Minnesota this summer, and probably back in Africa again sometime soon. Now it’s time for Gary, myself, Fernando and Arnaud to decide which 12 kids win the lottery and get to come to America.
More on that in tomorrow’s blog…our final day in Benin.
Day 10: May 20
Finally a day to unwind and maybe see a few things…No baseball on the schedule today, but as I would find out, there is no such thing as return to normalcy in Benin. Our flight leaves Benin at 11pm tonight, so we have a full day here.
At 9:30 this morning there’s a knock on our hotel door…It’s Fernando, ready for breakfast. Gary and I were thinking more like 10am, but that’s ok…then right on Fernando’s heals are Arnaud and Ralph. I guess it’s time to rise and shine. Arnaud is going to want an update on our selections for the team we are forming to come to Minnesota. Gary and I spent a fair amount of time Saturday night going over all of our notes and doing some consultation with Fernando, but we have narrowed it down to 13 kids, 12 of whom will come to the U.S. in late July courtesy of Baseball in Benin. We figure that one of the 13 will fall through for some reason or another so hopefully we don’t have to make that final choice.
After breakfast our plan is to pack our bags and get our luggage to the airport for early check in, then come back and check out of the hotel….The airport is close so it should work. Fernando drives us to the airport, then disappears. We come out and he is nowhere to be found. It’s another sweltering hot day and as we walk and look for him it doesn’t take long to feel the effects of the heat. After about 10 minutes of no-Fernando we flag down a hotel shuttle and they take us back. What the heck happened to Fernando? Oh well, we need to get checked out and this is where the fun begins.
So Gary heads to the front desk to check out while I finish picking up our last few items in the room. I get down to the lobby and Gary says there’s a problem. The credit card has been declined. So we have the woman run it again, and again. No luck. Then we try two of my cards…declined, declined. The desk worker at the Marina hotel says we can use the cash machine. Really? We’ve been here 10 days…I don’t think we can or should have to drum up that kind of cash. Sounds like a scam to us. Somebody is pocketing cash.
It looks like we have no other option, unless Fernando reports for the next two weeks to the hotel and does dishes. So we head to the ATM. The cash machine only allows you to take out 200k francs at a time (about $400)…so between the two of us we come up with enough to pay. What a joke. Gary walks back up to the desk, lays out the money in 7 piles…The women then says that we only owe 50k francs (about $100) for incidentals. What? What happened to the room charges? Apparently the credit card did run through earlier afterall, she just didn’t know it. So, there we stood with all this Mickey Mouse money (about $1400 worth) that we just took out of the cash machine. So Gary goes to the Currency exchange office to change it back to U.S. dollars. While he was doing that the woman comes up to me with another invoice for laundry. When Gary gets back I break him the news…The look on his face was priceless. “But I just switched all the money back. I don’t have anymore francs.” It’s now to the point of ridiculous. I think he was ready to go back to the front desk and choke the woman. I grab the invoice and head back up. I tell Fernando to interpret and tell her that I’m paying with credit card, take it or leave it. She takes it and says “no problem.” Gee, why didn’t I think of that? Finally we leave, after 90 minutes of this circus.
Time now to head to the market place for some gift shopping. We’ve been gone for 10 days, so we better not come home empty handed. We were here two years ago and we are sure to once again encounter bargaining like you’ve never experienced….But it’s part of the intrigue. The market place is the African version of downtown Nisswa, MN mid-summer, only it’s all outdoors in little grass-type huts. Again, you roast if you stay in them too long. They sell African everything…shirts, hats, wood carvings, table cloths, dresses, jewelery etc etc. They all call you “my friend” and they all sell the same stuff trying to lure you in to see their menagerie of treasures. After about an hour of playing let’s make a deal with the locals, we head out. Brittany and her fiance have a place in Cotonou that we can hang out in until it’s time to leave for the airport. Getting to their home is a trick as we navigate a road that might be the worst one I’ve seen all week. Literally like driving over moguls. Funny thing though, you walk into their place (second story above the street), and it’s like going from Africa to America by just taking a few short steps. They’ve got a bigflat screen with the Cavs/Celtics game on. I”m all in!!
Our final stop of the day before the airport is a small restaurant/bar next to the airport called the Spoon. Pizza and Coke are the selections of choice for me, Gary and Fernando. This is our 4th trip to the Spoon this week, so we know the menu well. While we’re waiting for our food, guess who shows up out of nowhere? Of course, it’s Mrs Abdul’s mom. MAM is decked out again in another African dress as she sits and joins us for dinner. Tonight at the Spoon there’s live music setting up. A little three-person group with this giant of a man begins playing classic American tunes. Stand By Me, Yesterday and Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis)..but the capper is when the guy breaks into his rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine”…Cocaine, with an African twist. It’s official, now I’ve seen it all.
We head to the airport where earlier in the day I noticed signs that said “Odabu”…that’s Swahili for “bon voyage.” How did I know that? Nope, not Google…I remember it from an episode of Sanford and Son where Lamont is exercising his African roots. I knew all that TV watching would come in handy some day.
Waiting for us at the airport is the gang…Including Fernando’s dad, Arnaud, Maroum Barack, Gildas, Ramuel and Arnaud’s fiance and cousin. MAM also rides over with us one last time (but how will she get home? )All there to say goodbye, and of course, to take pictures. But this won’t be a tearful goodbye, cause we will see many of them in July in Minnesota. Fernando and Arnaud have done a great job of recruiting exceptionally dedicated people. And these folks are the future of baseball in Benin. Not us…we are only providing the foundation.
Some observations on our 10 days in this spectacularly interesting country and our project:
- We’ve noticed many changes since our last trip two years ago. First at the airport, a noticeable upgrade as we arrived. Much quicker and more efficient processing as you enter the country, plus some re-decorating at the airport that includes at least one flat-screen TV…baby steps
- Some needs: Porta potties. I cannot believe all the people (mostly men, one woman) who we saw just openly urinating in public. I don’t think I noticed this at all 2 years ago. Maybe I’m just seeing more this time since I’ve been here before, but I was stunned.
- Roads…the side roads in particular have gone from bad to worse since 2016. Some look like ski moguls and I can imagine that it’s what it would be like driving on the moon.
- Broken down cars on the side of the road. They are everywhere and this partially goes back to bad roads. Cars are not built to withstand the punishment that these craters disguised as roads dish out.
- The saying ” If you can drive in Africa you can drive anywhere definitely holds true here. I made fun of Fernando’s driving this week, but in general he’s pretty good. There are a zillion motorcycles on the road and they have no qualms about cutting you off to get where they want to go. Cars basically do the same and motorcycles have to give way to the cars or they’ll get hit (See Wednesday and Thursday’s blogs, regarding Fernando). The roundabouts are a cluster and the few stop lights that do exist actually make thing worse.
- Coca Cola…yep…we drank a few bottles this week…I figured on average, three per day for 10 days…30 Cokes. That’s more than I’ll have for the next three years. I’m guessing we’re in for some withdrawal symptoms
- The Beninese people never cease to amaze me. They are out from sun-up to sun-down selling their goods on the streets and in front of their shanty-like homes trying to make a buck so they can sustain life. I’m still struck by the simplicity of the home that our former player Josue ‘s family lives in. It’s stark and frankly very sad. And I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of citizens in this country live in similar or worse conditions.
- Yet with all that these people have going against them they are genuinely proud, warm, welcoming, hard working people. At baseball, the kids want to help and do whatever you need them to do…carry equipment, set up equipment, carry your bags. Adults and kids alike wouldn’t let Gary and I carry our own bags…they insist on helping. And of course they love taking pictures. Anything we do, everywhere we go, they wanted to take pictures with us to preserve the memories. We took it as a compliment.
- Speaking of baseball, the quality of baseball is definitely on the rise. Much better than a couple years ago as we now have about 400 kids playing the game regularly. Not sure how long it will be before we see a major leaguer come out of here, but it will happen. There;s never been a major leaguer from Africa, Benin could be the first some day. And remember, the first game ever played here was just two years ago. They have the weather to play year ’round so they are gaining fast.
- Finally, we feel good about the results of our trip. 1)We solidified our relationships with several governmental agencies…as we have learned, it’s an absolute necessary evil. It took about 8 to 10 meetings, but it’s happening. 2) We have created a couple of leagues and are finalizing actual game schedules that will begin in June…and the teams are based in several communities. So it’s not just in Cotonou anymore 3) We distributed 18 sets of equipment that we had shipped to Benin about a month ago. And we did it in a fairly orderly manner, considering how most things go around here 4) we got a first hand look at the coaches, the kids they are coaching and what more equipment that they need. 5) We saw another 4 or 5 fields that the teams are playing and practicing on. We have now targeted one of those fields to be developed into our first permanent field. 6) We brought, set up and put to use two large portable nets that serve as backstops, a first for Benin. Last time we were here there were kids filling that void.
That’s about all I’ve got for this time around. We plan to return to Benin soon, hopefully next year.
Until then, Odabu