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Back in Africa: Day 5 of Minnesotan’s adventure bringing baseball to Benin, West Africa

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

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 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

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