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Back in Africa: Day 4 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.

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-ridewith 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

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