Coming to Africa! Right to Play field trip in Cotonou, Bénin
31 May 2011
I arrived in Africa the night of May 29th after a long trip. A 6:30 hours flight from Montreal to Paris, 4 hours layover at Charles de Gaulle and another delightful 6:30 hours flight with Air France into the city of Cotonou in Bénin.
Why am I here!? I was fortunate to be asked by Right to Play if I would accept to go on one of their field trip. At first I really was not sure if they were offering me that amazing and unique opportunity. I had to ask for precisions. I was secretly praying it meant either Middle East, Asia or Africa; the 3 continents and 40 countries where Right to Play has programs that impact the lives of over 700,000 children weekly. When Ashton from RTP wrote to tell me that I could join them on a trip to a French country of Africa, I was happily stunned and probably stared at the email forever. I have been an athlete ambassador with Right to play since 2003. There are about 350 athlete ambassadors throughout the world. Amongst them Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Ovechkin, Clara Hughes and many of my teammates such as Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Sami Jo Small and Jennifer Botterill.
Right to Play’s mission is to improve the lives of children in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world by using the power of sport and play for development, health and peace. Throughout my youth and to this day, I have, and continue to benefit tremendously from the positive power of sport and play. I am so thankful to have been born in a country that has given me the right to follow my heart and play the sport that passionate me. I have learned so much from sport about self-confidence, teamwork, leadership, dealing with adversity, controlling my emotions, accepting a role, perseverance and believing in my goals and dreams. It is an honor to be associated with an association like Right to Play that fights to give that same right to play sports we often take for granted, in places where children do not have it. RTP programs are more than just sport, they are designed to teach children important life skills that will help them take care of their health, take care of one another, and educate the ones around them.
If you want to learn more about RPT visit:
My friends on the trip:
I am visiting with three other members of Right to Play. The first one is Robert Witchel, National director for Right to Play Canada. Robert is responsible for leading Canadian revenue development, athlete and sports alliances, communications and stewardship activities. He possesses 15 years of multi-disciplinary business experience in international business development, sales, marketing and operations in Canada, USA, Latin America and Europe.
I also have the privilege to meet Vancouver Olympic gold medalist in Bobsleigh Heather Moyse. Heather won gold in Vancouver with teammate and driver Kaillie Humphries setting numerous track records. A Summerside, PEI native, Heather has also been a member of the Canadian Rugby team. Heather has the strongest calfs I have ever seen in my life! They certainly contribute in making the best Bobsleigh breakman in the world. Why the best!? With either Kaillie Humphries or ex-pilot Helen Upperton, Moyse holds or has tied nine track start records, including every track on the 2009–2010 World Cup circuit. Heather says about her calfs that she went for cosmetic breast surgery but that the doctors accidently put the implants in the wrong place J In only a few hours, Heather and I found a common passion for eating and a similar tendency torwards crabbiness when hungry or-and tired.
More on Heather at http://www.heathermoyse.net/
Then lastly an equally amazing athlete I am joining is Martin Purcell. Martin ran 250 marathons in 1 year to raise over $300,000 for Right to Play. This means he ran on average an incredible 5 marathons a week. He ran for a total of 10,500 kilometers. Martin has also biked across Africa leaving from Egypt and finishing in South Africa. I would love to spend a day or two in his head to hear his inner voice because it must be so incredibly strong for him to find the confidence and courage to always keep going and do it with a smile! Imagine this… he once ran a full marathon in a school yard doing 100 meters back and forth for about 5 hours! No other choice, it was winter and lots of snow in Calgary at the time! What an athlete but also what a phenomenon!
More on Martin at: http://www.marathonquest250.com/
The Bénin Program
Our day started with a visit at the Bénin headquarter offices where we met the local staff of Right to play. We were able to learn more about the goals of the program here. The coaches and leaders of the Bénin RTP program use sport and play to promote the physical, social, intellectual and emotional development of vulnerable children. Last year, a total of 32,334 children were reached by the program of RTP Bénin, through over 860 coaches and leaders trained on the module of sports, children’s development, and HIV and Aids preventive education. The staff here is super nice and really believe and are driven by the mission and goals of Right to Play
Throughout the day, we had to drive to several places and I must admit that I thanked God that she let me live another day. Sorry mom for making you even more worried than you already are! In 2008 I was in Harbin, China for the World Championship and truly found the traffic there unbelievable. It is quite similar here although the roads are in much worse conditions with potholes about ten times the size of the ones we complain about at home. There are motorcycles everywhere with 2-3-4 people on them or with people carrying huge and wide objects of all kinds. It is frequent to see a full family on one bike. There are many huge trucks filled with materials holding and hanging by not much driving on streets the size of not quite 2 lanes each way. There are not really any signs or even less lines on the roads to separate the lanes. Many of the roads are not paved. The speed limit is no-where to be found but probably more frequent than police officers as far as I could see. Honking or flashing the high lights are the popular way of communicating you are passing someone. Zigzagging seems to be the popular driving method.
After our morning meeting, we went to lunch with the RTP staff at a nearby restaurant. Since this is our first time venturing away from our nice hotel, I decided to go safe and order the braised chicken. Not knowing what the size might look like I hesitated between the quarter or the half chicken to finally settle for the half. I was hungry! Martin and Heather also picked the same item on the menu. When I received my plate, I thought there had been a mistake and that I was given a quarter and not a half chicken but it was there, the tiny little resemblance of something like a chicken breast. To say the least the African chickens are not fed whatever our Canadian chickens are! The best way to explain would be to say that our chicken are similar to Offensive Line Montreal Alouette football players and that the African chickens are similar to someone crazy that would run 250 marathons in one year! I also found out during that meal that many places in Bénin are BYOTP! Anyone able to guess what that means!? I will explain later… don’t miss it!
I spoke to the King of Allada
After lunch, we ventured to the commune of Allada where we would visit a RTP school before visiting the Kingdom of Allada where we would meet the King! We were all pretty excited about witnessing the impact of RTP in the children lives and also nervous about not knowing what to wear or how to address the King! The school visit was dazzling. It is hard to describe the incredible vibe that the children resonate. The power of their incredibly deep smiles. They have close to almost nothing but yet, their laughs are so genuine. They have all the reasons to be sad and cynical, yet they are loving, welcoming, and happy. I wish you could see their reaction when one of us would take of picture of them at the moment they get to see it. It is like they had never seen an image of themselves or cannot comprehend that they could be in a still frame. The laughs, the smiles, the hope in their eyes to have one more picture taken of themselves. At that moment, I wish I could have taken a picture of all of them and then hug them all! They chanted, danced, ran with such enthusiasm. They waved non-stop. It was incredible to witness how happy they were in those precise moments.
Unfortunately, we had to leave to make sure we would not make the king wait! We arrived on the Kingdom of Allada whom was I must say was not very empire like. Although the palace was nicer than most of the homes we saw all day. We had dancers welcome us with a terrific performance. We entered a room where we would meet the King. There were about 50 of us in a somewhat small room that was pretty hot as well. All were members of the Kingdom. I would say that the King resembled Eddy Murphy in the Movie Coming to America. If you have not seen it, it’s worth it! Our King was wearing a Leopard type outfit and sat in a also leopard coated chair surrounded by two leopard stuffed animals. By his side was a woman holding a huge umbrella with animals on it and on the other side a woman blowing wind at him with a giant leaf shaped tool. She did it with such fire power and eagerness at each rep that we all thought she was about to smack him on the head. The goal of our visit was to give the opportunity to children to speak to the King about how RTP impacted their lives. I must say that the children speeches were fantastic and I was really impressed about how well they communicated with him. I was chosen to give the King a small gift from Right to Play and I must admit that I realized I was nervous after I said the words: ‘’ Votre Majesté’’ and began my speech. I sure had never spoken to a King and never thought that would happen to me.
Drug Testing in Bénin!?
After the ceremony who lasted close to two hours, I really had to use the bathroom. So I ventured to ask for the permission to do so! I did notice some resistance but did not think much of it at the time. I was told to follow this woman wearing a long and beautiful African robe. I thought ‘ok she is leading me inside the royal palace.’ To my surprise she led me outside to a room adjacent to the ceremonial room and pointed to the corner of what looked like a backyard with a couple rocks. Perhaps this was the heavenly bathroom garden and I did not realize how lucky I was to be given the opportunity to use it. I, at that moment, decided that it was not such an emergency after all! But she insisted that I go about three times speaking to me in the local language which I did not understand a word. I decided it was safer to abide and let her win, besides I did not want to be rude. BYOTP means Bring Your Own Toilet Paper, which in this case, contrary to the lunch at the restaurant I had not done! So my lady who felt like a doping control officer pointed to the two rocks simulating that I should use them to hold myself as I was squatting. I thanked her for the advice and started taking position to notice that she was still there only a few feet away still staring at me. An awkward and unexpected moment to say the least. I learned the important lessons to always BYOTP and also to chose carefully where I decide to ask for my bathroom visits.
Today was incredible and I am so happy to be here and witness the impact of Right to Play in the children lives. If you are interested in sponsoring me through Right to Play, you can do so by donating at:
Thank you for reading!