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.
As we start out today I keep telling Gary that our story in Africa keeps writing itself. Today is no exception. So per usual, we come out of our hotel room to head down for breakfast and we are greeted in the hall by Fernando…and seconds later guess who pops out of the elevator behind him? Of course, it’s Mrs. Abdul’s mom in a long formal African dress (see Day 5 blog entry for further explanation). She’s all set for popping in and out of our lives again today.
After breakfast we head out to meet with the president of the Benin National Olympic Committee. He has a keen interest in Baseball in Benin as baseball returns to the Summer Games in 2020. We tell him that in 2028 when the Games are in Los Angeles, Benin should have enough quality developed players that they should be able to field a team. He seemed excited about the prospect and offered to help us in any way he could. We invited him to our games on Saturday, but he politely declined. So much for helping us….but it was good for us to discuss long term goals, and the Olympics in 2028 would be one. That would be quite a feat for a country that just got introduced to the game in 2011.
Our next stop is to visit the parents of Josue Acakpo. Josue was one of the 12 kids that we brought to Minnesota back in 2016 to compete in our Wood Bat tournament. On March 18th of this year, after a year-long illness, Josue died at the age of 14.
Our group got to Josue’s home in Cotonou shortly after noon where we were greeted by his mother, father and 17 year old brother. Josue’s family lives in a very small shanty-type home and they obviously have extremely limited means. A small refrigerator in a kitchen that is actually part of the living room where there was a small case of small water bottles that they brought out for us to drink. By looking around I got the impression that they could barely afford the water bottles and that they made a special effort so that they had something for us. The heat in the house was sweltering, so even though the water was warm, we needed it.
On top of the TV is a shrine for Josue. Photos of him playing baseball in Minnesota, the trophy that he won in our tournament and a photo book that we presented him when he and his teammates left Minnesota…and up on the wall above the TV, his “bronze” medal his team won in our tournament. It was a heart wrenching scene. His father told us that all Josue wanted to do is play baseball. Gary presented Josue’s mother with a necklace
with an inscription that had his jersey #3, and said “Josue, in our hearts forever.” After getting the necklace, his mother left the room, I presume to cry. I could hardly hold back my tears. Josue’s father (who looks just like Josue), told us that what happened was God’s will and that they were honored to host us. He also said that our visit today to pay our respects was helping them heal. Such unbelievably kind and humble people living in horrendous poverty and in the midst of tragically losing their 14 year old son. It’s just sad.
We then went outside for photos and that seemed to help lighten the atmosphere. We also learned that Josue’s brother Timothy is a baseball player and will be playing in the game that we are hosting on Saturday for kids 13 and up. Josue’s father said he will attend…more healing and I am glad we are a part of it.
We are now heading back to the hotel to get out of our monkey suits and into baseball practice clothes. It’s going to be ridiculously hot on the fields today. When we get to our room I check my email and it’s a note from US Ambassador Lucy Tamlyn. She confirmed that she will be at the 10am game on Saturday for Little Leaguers and she is bringing the Japanese Ambassador as well. Great news! Now we start putting the wheels in motion to get a tent and chairs for our game on Saturday so that people who attend are comfortable.
After about an hour respite at the hotel we hit the road (with Mrs. Abdul’s mom in tow), headed for Arnaud’s practice about 10 minutes away from his regular spot in Cocotomey. About three quarters of the way there Fernando pulls off the road to get directions to the field. That’s where Mrs. Abdul’s mom decides to hop out. I’m sure we’ll see her again…It’s kinda like “Where’s Waldo.”
We arrive at the field after driving through some of the worst roads I have ever seen or even heard of…they are so full of holes, hills and puddles it’s unbelievable. The field is located adjacent to a school and the ground is basically beach sand. Tough to do anything groundball wise, but we manage. There are about 15 kids there ready to go at 3pm and we begin practice. Our main goal is to look at the 11 and 12 year olds to see if any are going to be talented enough to compete in our tournament in Minnesota. Eventually there are about 30-35 kids at practice as they arrive on their parents motorcycles and other means. Most of the kids however, are older…13 and up, and many of them are Fernando’s team that came to Minnesota…Fidele, Thomas, Joel and Cici are all there. This is not close to their homes in Cotonou. We are flabbergasted to see them so far from home (about 30 minutes). We did see at least one 12 year old that should make the cut, he can pitch , field and hit…perfect, but we need more. We also are looking to come up with several kids to play in the Little League aged game on Saturday that the Ambassadors will be attending. We want to put on a good show.
As we end practice at about 5pm we have to hustle as we have a 6pm appointment back in Cotonou with a person they call the “Perfect”. Basically he is the right hand man to the President of Benin. Getting this meeting is a big coup for Fernando who has been trying to get this meeting for literally years.
This is where today’s story gets goofy. So we are told that we need to be there at 6pm sharp…no exceptions, or we lose the appointment. We actually arrive at about 5:40, so we are plenty early. By the way, guess who showed up out of nowhere?…yep it was MAM (Mrs. Abdul’s Mom). We are then escorted into a waiting room that is warm, muggy and smells of perspiration. There’s a ceiling fan blowing but the air conditioner is not on. The room has a high ceiling and the walls are covered by big heavy drapes. There is a photo of the President of Benin on one of the non-draped walls. There are about 6 or 7 people already in the room waiting. Welcome to the Banana Republic of Benin.
At about 6:30 they finally call us in. So much for 6pm sharp. I am nervous about the timing because we have a meeting with Amporo from the US Embassy at 7:30. As we head into the “perfect’s” office we are asked to leave our cell phones in a basket. I just have a camera, and apparently that’s ok. I assume that they just don’t want phones ringing and people not paying attention while in this meeting. Makes sense, I guess.
As we enter the “Perfect’s” office he is a large bald man dressed in a green army uniform. The walls in his office are adorned by photos of the President of Benin and of himself, in uniform. The “Perfect” is sitting behind a large desk and asks us to sit down. He then shakes Gary and my hands and then immediately proceeds to take a call on his cell phone. He has a wireless ear piece/blue tooth device and is talking very loud while we all sit and watch him talk. This goes on for about 10 minutes. Finally he hangs up and then starts talking to one of his assistants who is behind us and who has come into the room. A few moments later his phone rings again and he’s back on the horn. What in the world?
We wait a few more minutes before he finally breaks away from his cell phone to talk to us. He doesn’t speak any English so Fernando is again called into duty to interpret. One of Fernando’s coaches Moum Barack, introduces our delegation and explains our mission. Moum Barack is a dominating figure himself and is very sure of himself. He politely does his speaking while standing. Moments later the Perfect is back on the phone again. It’s getting to the point of ridiculous. They had us leave our phones in the hall and he’s on his cell basically the entire time. Finally we get his attention after the most recent call and after two other female assistants come into the room and have him sign papers. This guy is a cross between Kernel Klink and Henry Blake with all these people running at is beckon call.
Gary then is officially given the floor to talk and after we explain what the game of baseball is, he tells us that he has a Minnesota Twins hat. What? Are you kidding? Apparently he has a friend who lives in the Twin Cities who gave him a hat. Gary then (after yet another interruption by one of his stooges) invites him to come to Minnesota for this year’s Wood Bat Tournament. The Perfect says that there is a national holiday in Benin on August 1st so he can’t come. I figure he’s just trying to nicely decline. I then tell him that the tournament runs from Aug 2nd through the 5th, and I jokingly say “you could still make it for part of the tournament.” Then to our amazement, he says yes. I look at Fernando for confirmation and he says yes, that this guy is coming to Robbinsdale. We can’t believe it. Moments later his press secretary, sitting behind me, asks if we would pay for his plane ticket. I politely and laughingly say no. The Perfect says he’s coming anyway. It’s about as weird as it gets. I guess he was just trying to save the Benin government a few bucks and figured it was worth asking. So, it’s settled, he’s coming on August 3rd to Minnesota. Wow.
It’s photo time now, and the story gets even better. So we all start getting up out of our chairs for a photo and the “Perfect” swings his chair to his right. He grabs out from behind his desk an army hat. Then one of his assistants comes around the desk and gets on his knees. It’s time to shine the “Perfect’s” boots. Oh my god…I am speechless. Welcome to Benin. Moments later the multitude of photos and poses begins and the “Perfect” eats it up. He actually seems like a nice guy with a funny personality, but lord I just can’t wrap my head around all the other stuff. As we march out the door I say “see you in August”. He replies, he’ll be there. As we’re walking out the door I ask Gary, “What just happened in there?” Who knows. All I know is that this character dressed up like Idi Amin is coming to our tournament.
Of course the day isn’t quite done yet. We have to rush back to the hotel to meet Amparo from the US Embassy and we are about 10 minutes late…fortunately she is there, patiently waiting for us. She thinks nothing of the tardiness, saying that 10 minutes is nothing in Benin. How right she is. We give her a couple of Baseball in Benin t-shirts for her and the Ambassador, a couple of Baseball in Benin “souvenir” lapel pins and several copies of the sports magazine we publish, Minnesota Score. We give her the issue that has a large feature on Baseball in Benin. I give her a few extras for the Library at the Embassy. She tells us that they’re always looking for English publications for Beninese to read and especially sports since it helps peek their interest. She also tells us that it looks like several folks who work at the US Embassy will be at the game on Saturday. Everyone is looking forward to it.
I forgot to mention…we experience our first power outage early Wednesday morning. Just after I finished Tuesday’s blog. In 2016 there were 3 to 5 power outages per day, and for no apparent reason. Today, our first of the trip. Things are improving here in Benin. For now, it’s on to Thursday….night all…bon nui