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Back in Africa: Day 8 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.

Finally, a chance to sleep in today…and I needed it. Something I ate on Thursday didn’t sit well…Eating here is tricky, but for the most part we’ve done pretty well. You have to stay away from fruits and vegetables that don’t come in a shell…like tomatoes, or lettuce or apples. Anything that could’ve been washed in water out of the tap is probably going to have bacteria that most Americans can’t handle. So we eat lots of pizza, chicken, fish and drink bottles of Coke everywhere we go. It’s about the only time Gary and I ever drink pop, but as Gary says, it’s better than being sick. Most restaurants will serve you Coke in a bottle and bring ice in a glass. Of course we have to refuse the ice cause that’s going to be made from tap water. Again, we’ve been careful and have for the most part averted any health issues.

After an extremely long day Thursday, it was good to catch up on my sleep today. Gary, of course was up and atom, eating breakfast and meeting with Arnaud, Ralph and their treasurer. I haven’t mentioned Ralph earlier, but he’s been part of our gang bopping from one meeting to the next all week. Ralph is a clothes and jewelry designer here in Benin and he dresses like it, cutting edge…just like me and Gary in our shorts and t-shirts. Ralph is a tall slender gentleman who is the president of Arnaud’s baseball organization. Gary calls him Ralph Lauren.

Gary, Ralph and company are in the lobby of the hotel planning out the details of Saturday’s double header of games that we have scheduled. It’s going to be a huge deal with US Ambassador Lucy Tamlyn and the Japanese Ambassador among the dignitaries coming. A tent, chairs, P.A system and more need to be rented. Oh yeah, and you have to pay for the media to come. So we’ll shell out about $300 for TV, Radio and print coverage. I suggest that the Minnesota Score would do it for $290 but Arnaud insists that people in Benin don’t read the Minnesota Score or listen to our radio show. I’m both insulted and surprised. Arnaud takes me seriously, but I think he’s starting to learn.

We then find out that the field in Cocotomey on which we planned to play the Little League game is not available Saturday, so everything is moving to Calavi where we will play the game for the 13-17 year olds….So this actually works out. We don’t have to do two games in two different places. The Little League game will be at 10am on Saturday…then at about 3pm the older kids will play. I gladly played sick up in our room while these guys figured things out.

Today’s first meeting is supposed to be at 3pm with the Minister of Sport. This is the person who basically decides what sports the Benin government will officially recognize, so this is a big deal. However, just after 11am I get a call and they need to move up our meeting to 1:30 this afternoon. No problem, but there goes my shopping day. That will have to wait. So at 1:30 we bring our whole dog and pony show to the Minister of Sport’s offices. It’s a fairly nondescript building, like most government buildings. But after a half dozen meetings this week, the formula is exactly the same. We sit in a waiting area (actually only waited about 5 minutes today unlike our marathon wait Thursday for the Emperor of Calavi). After the waiting area you get marched into an office with couches and chairs around the perimeter. Mrs Abdul’s Mom pops up out of nowhere (MAM), Moum Barack (today dressed in an all-white traditional African gown) introduces all of us…Whoever we’re meeting with talks…Gary talks…I chime in. Fernando and Arnaud interpret because most of the people we meet with don’t speak English. We take pictures at the end, and we leave. We end up with three of these meetings today, deja vu all over again.

The Minister of Sport is a young man probably in his early 30’s at most and he does speak English, so that’s a plus right there. He already knows about the 2016 venture when we brought 12 kids to Minnesota to play baseball. He was actually part of the official greeting party when the kids returned to Benin. He likes what we are doing and says he’s on board with helping us establish a federation. He also says that adding new sports is one of his priorities, and we fit the bill perfectly. This is big news as Fernando and Arnaud have been trying to make this happen for the last couple of years. I also think it has a lot to do with the call from Ambassador Tamlyn to set this meeting up. He also says that the government is able to help us with shipping. That’s our number one problem with establishing the sport here…the cost of shipping baseball equipment. It’s a very good meeting.

So now it’s on to meet the Benin government Sports Finance director …Gary, Fernando and I hustle to the car so we can get rolling. Just as we’re about to pull away Moum Barack chases us down and Fernando rolls down the window. Moum Barack is a big guy…probably 6’3″, bald and very imposing looking. Gary and I call him “The Commander.” He tells Fernando in no uncertain terms that we need to come back into the building for a meeting (an unscheduled one) with the Director of the Sports. This is the hands on guy. The Minister is the figure head, this guy does all the day to day stuff. I’m actually glad that this one happened. The director looks like an athlete. Probably in his mid to late 40’s and was a World Cup Soccer ref on two different occasions. He tells us that he wants to learn more about baseball, and he actually wants to coach his own team. We tell Fernando he has a new student. More photos follow, of course and we’re out.

We get back to the car and off we go to the Finance director’s offices. Arnaud, Ralph Lauren and his treasurer; MAM, Moum Barack and Gildas; me, Gary and Fernando. We really are a dog and pony show. So here it is…our final meeting of the week (I hope). We take a rickety elevator that’s the size of a phone booth up four floors. It will have to make two trips cause there are 9 of us. It dumps us into an equally narrow hallway and where we have to ring a doorbell to get in. Nobody answers. Moum Barack then leaves to find out where we need to be. Believe me when I say it, Moum Barack means business. He of course returns a few minutes later and we’re in. It’s not the Finance director, but his deputy assistant. That’s ok. We just want to let them know who we are. After all, these guys are the ones who write the checks. After a short meeting and more pictures, we are finally finished with meetings. Thank God.

MAM climbs into the car with us and we are off to the hotel to change out of our monkey suits and into our baseball clothes for Arnaud’s practice. Of course on the way, we drop off MAM at some stoplight and she steps out into traffic and takes off. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason on where we drop her off or pick her up. Never ceases to amaze me. And boy is she a talker…and I’m not kidding…Of course I don’t understand anything she says as she speaks the local language of Fon. BAH, BAH, BAH, BAH, BAH BAH,…loud and fast. I have absolutely no clue what the hell she’s talking about. Oh well…she’s dedicated and a very nice lady. Plus it’s entertaining to guess where we’ll see her next.

We are now scurrying to get to Arnaud’s practice so we can see the remainder of the 12 year olds that he has that we didn’t see on Wednesday. Fernando adds another notch on his steering wheel as he smacks into another motorcyclist near one of the stoplights along the way. The woman gets bumped forward, but just keeps going, no problem. If you’re counting, that’s now 4 “car wrecks” for Fernando this week…two moving, two stationary. At the same intersection we get the biggest, longest parade of car to car salespeople we’ve seen all week. Everything from a Scrabble game, to flash drives, to pineapples, to coffee pots, wall clocks, soccer balls etc etc etc. It’ endless. But this was a new one today. There was a guy selling a beautiful puppy. I was too slow with my camera as he walked past us. Just when I think I’ve seen it all in Benin, I see something new.

We get to practice at about 5:15pm and Arnaud has things rolling. About 20 older kids on one side of the school yard, and about ten 12-year olds with him near where we parked. We only get half of the school yard because a large group of kids are playing soccer. They actually have the field butted up against our infield. As soccer balls come flying into our practice, and baseballs into their game, I ask Arnaud to ask them to go north and south instead of east and west and they do. Not sure why they didn’t do that in the first place. There is much more room that way. Oh well, they’re soccer players, how smart can they be?

Gary and I spend about and hour evaluating Arnaud’s 12 year olds. I pitch and hit grounders and Gary jots down evaluations. There’s one kid we hadn’t seen before that’s a sure-fire candidate to come to Minnesota. So total, there are two bigger kids that we think are no-brainers and a couple others that we’ll put into the mix, although the other two are kinda small. No matter, we’ll get another look in the game on Saturday. At the end of practice I hand out the rest of the Smarties Candies that I had, and it was just enough. We get done and it’s starting to get dark…it’s 7pm….One note about being out after dark in Benin. I think most Americans would think it’s dangerous, and I’m sure there are places that we shouldn’t be, but the street vendors are there late…I mean 10pm, 11pm and they’re still out. So are some of the car to car sales guys. New experience tonight, a guy came up and cleaned our windshields as we waited at a stoplight. Of course he wanted to be paid, but Fernando said we didn’t order the cleaning, so he just steps on the gas and we’re outta here. So am I….Tomorrow is game-day. Should be fun.

Until then…Au Revoir

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