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. This month we have returned to Benin to continue our work and initiate the first Little League sanctioned season and games.
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 after all, 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, jewelry 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 big flat 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 “Odabo”…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, Romuald 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.
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.
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.
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
We got a first hand look at the coaches, the kids they are coaching and what more equipment that they need.
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.
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, Odab