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.
It’s been a week since we left home and today we wake up early to the sounds of a thunderstorm. With the rain pounding the ground below us (we’re on the 3rd floor of our hotel) we watch and wonder what it’s going to do to the roads around Cotonou that already have severe problems. To no one’s surprise there is urban flooding in many spots with knee deep water on some streets. The rain subsides after about an hour, but the damage has been done.
We get off to a flying start. A motorcyclist cuts in front of us and Fernando smacks into him. The guy’s hand caught the brunt of it as it got pinched between the bike and our car. The cyclist kind of shakes his hand to shake off the pain and drives away. If this happened in the U.S. there would be police reports and lawyers involved. Here, the guy shakes off the pain and drives away. For Fernando however, is the tri-fecta and his first moving object. You’ll remember that earlier this week he backed into a parked car and ran into a tree. It was going to be that kind of morning.
We are headed to Calavi this morning to meet with their mayor. We met him two years ago on our trip in 2016 and it was fairly entertaining. I asked Gary last night if we should even bother with this meeting since we were told a couple days ago by the sub-mayor that we now have to pay $60,000 for the land that two years ago they were going to give us. We have no intention or ability to spend that kind of money on the land and so to me it seemed like a trip we could do without. Gary agrees…however Fernando says we could ask the mayor if they have any other land in Calavi that they would be willing to donate. We begrudgingly agree to keep the appointment. We are also scheduled to meet with the director of sports for the city of Cotonou shortly after noon, so it’s going to be a busy day.
We hit the road at about 9:30am and it’s an eerie scene on the streets. Not as many motorcycles as usual because of the rain. The vendors who stalk you at the stoplights in town are now cleverly selling umbrellas and windshield wipers. These car to car salespeople have it all figured out. As I mentioned earlier parts of the main road are under water. It rained so hard so fast that the storm sewers couldn’t handle all the water so it ends up making the streets look like shallow rivers. Fernando however is undeterred and splashes his way through getting us to the mayor’s office at about 10:10. So in Benin, we are considered on time…maybe even early.
We walk into the building and up some stairs to the reception area where they direct us into a waiting room. Exactly as I remember it from two years ago. Ceiling fans twisting in a small hot room with an old broken down TV and a couple of people already waiting. So, we take a seat and begin our wait for the Mayor. Of course after a few minutes we are joined by Mrs. Abdul’s Mom. She once again is dressed to the max wearing another African design dress. It’s Fernando, me, Gary and MAM…then after a few minutes Moum Barack joins us and eventually Gildas.
We continue to wait…it’s now 10:30, then 11am, then 11:30. I am anxious to move on as we wait. I think folks are getting irritated with me, but I’m the only one willing to say it. I tell Fernando that at noon, we’re gonna just leave. Fernando heads out and tells the Mayor’s staff of our intention. He finds out that the Mayor is in a different part of the building meeting a Russian delegation. Maybe they are plotting to fix Benin’s next election? Who knows…in any case the mayor sends word that he will meet with us in a few minutes. At about 11:57 we get word that the Mayor is ready to see us. We head out and we are joined by Arnaud and his group. Into the Mayor’s office we go, our group of nine. We take a few minutes to pull up chairs around a seating area with the Mayor. This guy is a real piece of work. Wearing outrageously expensive bling and watch. Gary (Mr Optician) tells me that the Mayor’s glasses are no Dollar Tree specials either.
He begins talking to us saying that he apologizes for keeping us waiting and that he was unaware of the meeting….which is bull. Fernando and Moum Barack had received confirmation of the meeting earlier this week. He then says in English that he could meet with us at another time, some other day. He gets up and the meeting is over. We are all sitting there in stunned silence. He drags us all in there to tell us that he can’t meet with us because he’s playing footsie with the Russians? Our “meeting” literally lasted about 2 minutes. We waited 2 hours and got 2 minutes of this joker’s time. Rest assured that he’s probably on the take at every opportunity including now with some of the worst people on earth, the Russian government. No surprise though. They probably spotted him from a million miles away. Of course I’m just guessing all of this, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. We get back into the car and head back to Cotonou to meet with the city’s director of athletics. Hopefully that meeting will go better.
MAM jumps into the car with us ready for another meeting and eventually another disappearing act. As we pull into the parking lot for the Cotonou athletic director it is completely flooded. Ankle to knee deep water everywhere. Fernando has to pull up to an opening in a fence where we literally have to jump or take a large step to get onto dry land. Gonna be interesting for MAM, but we all make it. We have a good meeting with a young man and his assistant. They seem genuinely interested in baseball and helping us promote it in the high schools. That will be a huge help because right now we’re really only focused on baseball for kids up to the age of 16…we could use some support and continuation in the schools. Thankfully this is our last meeting of the day, but it was a good one.
We now are headed back to the hotel to change our clothes and take a break. On the way we drop off MAM at another random location next to a slew of sidewalk vendors (those are everywhere by the way). I never have any idea where we are dropping her or how she gets to the next location. That’s what makes it fun I guess. No time for lunch today so Gary pulls out the Pop Tarts and other snacks when we get to our hotel room. We have a 3pm practice back in Calavi that we need to get to. We end up leaving at about 2:45pm, so we’re going to be late. In addition Fernando announces that he needs to stop at home to change into his coaching clothes. Thank goodness we’re in Benin. Nobody else in the U.S. would put up with this constant tardiness.
The “Road to Calavi” is jam packed with cars, motorcycles and water from the rain earlier today. The smell of exhaust fumes is heavy today because of the humid air, low clouds and lack of a breeze. I would hate to live in Beijing and put up with something like this every day….So to avoid this massive traffic jam Fernando takes some side roads. Probably not a great choice today. The rain from the morning made many of the side streets nearly impassable. After about another 45 minutes of winding down side-street after side-street we make it to practice…it’s after 4pm and we’re already tired. The good news is that it’s time for baseball and the kids, which makes it all worth while.
When we get to the field in Calavi we are greeted by Brittany. She lives in Minnesota and is the one who helped us arrange for the delivery of the 13 barrels of equipment that we handed out this past Sunday. She also has offered her home to us (she and her fiance have a place in Benin) on this coming Sunday as we have to check out of our hotel by noon and our flight doesn’t leave til 11pm. That’s good news. It gives us a place to call home for the day Sunday.
At first there are only about 8 or 9 kids at practice. The good news is that most of these 8 or 9 are the best 12 year olds in Benin. We saw them pitch in a scrimmage on Tuesday, today we’ll take BP and watch them hit. We are trying to find 12 players out of all of the players that we have playing, to come to the U.S. in July/August. Interestingly, the kids in this group are all bigger than most average 12 year olds in Benin. Fernando explains that their living conditions are much better than the rest and that they eat better and probably eat more because their families can afford it. At this age, size matters in baseball so this is a good thing. Fernando throws batting practice while Gary and I watch and kibitz. Eventually more kids arrive (including of course three of the regulars from the 2016 team, Fidele, Joel and Cici). This is a strong group. There are roughly 10 kids here today that we watch that could be possibles for the U.S. trip. Some are sure things. I then hit some infield and outfield and we go til about 6:30. Good workout and Gary and I have a good idea of who can play and who can’t. Thursday evening is another adventure in the car as we head to Alban’s family’s house for dinner. Alban is the person who ignited the Baseball in Benin project some 8 years ago when he met Gary. Alban’s sister works at the U.S. Embassy and she is waiting for us as we roll up some time after 8pm as a result of battling traffic and bad side-roads. Finally, we get a home cooked meal and a comfortable night at their family home.
One more observation about today’s practice…As practice ended I dug into my bag and handed out candy to the kids that I brought from home. “Smarties”…I love Smarties and the kids in an orderly fashion each get a package. Of course Fidele tries to sneak an extra one from me. But overall, nothing like two years ago where anytime we had something to give away we’d get mobbed. This was much better, far more orderly. While I’m doing this Gary has his hands full with taking equipment and uniform requests from Fernando’s coaches….Never a dull moment.
No practices tomorrow because we have a very important meeting with the Minister of Sports at 3pm, so this is the last time we’ll see the kids before Saturday’s games. Friday morning will be a time to catch up on some rest. I think I’ll start that process right now.