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.
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.