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Back in Africa: Day 3 of Minnesotan’s adventure bringing baseball to Benin, West Africa

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.

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….

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