The power of play and the resiliency to fight for the right to practice the sport we love

June 1st

Waky-Waky too early

This morning, the 6:00am alarm was to say the least painful. But the reason for this early wake-up call was to join Martin in a running session with all of the RTP staff. Many of them had never really run. Martin explained that he started running at 47 years old and slowly built his way up to being able to run ultra marathons (90-100km). He explained that the best way to start is to run intervals. The first one being one minute of running – four minutes of walking, 6 times the first few times. Then moving to 2 minutes of running for 3 minutes of walking etc… So we ran 6 intervals in what I would describe as a busy surrounding. Everyone was enjoying the run and doing it with a smile. Another example of the power of sport to inspire people came out of that simple group exercising session. A woman came to the Right to Play office later that day wanting to register for the running group she had seen on the street. The staff was sad to explain to her that RTP was not a running club but an international charity for children. Exercising is contagious! What have you done today to take care of yourself!?

Tree Day Annual Celebration

Following the run, we went to a school in the commune of Calavi for the annual ‘’Tree day’’ celebration. For this occasion, we planted several trees in the school backward. Trees can greatly help with the quality of air and it is an initiative that keeps people healthy. The children were very excited about the planting and very determined to give continuing life to the trees.  After we danced and chanted together, it was time for us to leave to go visit the association of young workers of Bénin.

The Association of the Young Workers of Bénin

This association was created in 3 African countries to help teenagers learn to read and write and to find a career they could be successful in based on their strengths. The association work with some of the most underprivileged kids of Cotonou. For many of them, they will learn a technical job through various formations and this will allow them to eat and make ends meet. Right to Play has worked in partnership with the association to help educate teachers in several fields of work. The children are able to attend diverse formations from accounting, painting, printing, marketing etc. There were children from 8 to 18. We saw some of the printing work they did and it was excellent. Following the meeting we went for lunch to a delicious restaurant where I ordered a pizza with ham, mushroom and peppers. I decided to stay away from chicken today!

The Tigresse Football team are champions all the way!

The afternoon was my favorite part of the trip so far. We met an all girl soccer (football here) team called the Tigresse and watched them practicing. They are the Bénin’s best football team and recently won the country’s championship organized by Right to Play. 6 of their members represent the country in the African Football Cup. They are aged from 14 to 26 with very different social and educational backgrounds. We watched a coach trained by Right to Play lead them through several agility and power drills. I was greatly impressed with the skill level and the work ethic.  An interesting aspect is that the football field is all in sand, not the soft beach sand, but the relatively hard ‘’infield softball type’’ sand. We were later able to see images of the recent Right to Play tournament won by the team and noticed that this field had sand in some parts and long grass in others. Long here means 5 times the grass we would have at home. Grass that appeared more to be branchy leafs than simple grass. We could see the ball deflecting left and right after it hit the grass. The athletes were impressively good at handling the ball considering its unpredictable movement.

After the practice, we sat down to meet them. They all introduced themselves and we also talked about our involvement in sports. I could tell that many of them dream just like I did and still do of miraculously making a living playing the sport they love. I could see that same passion and drive, that same addiction for a game that becomes most of what we think about. What I realized was that many of the struggles these girls face today were my struggles 25 years ago when I started begging my parents to let me play hockey. First of all, the refusal to play. My dad was worried I would get hurt. He also knew I would be one of the only girls to play that sport at the time. He did not want me to be an outcast, to be different. To have to face the prejudices that come with being outside of the norms. These girls’ experiences are similar. Often their parents do not want them to play sport because girls should help take care of the home and go to the food market. Socially it is not feminine for girls to play sports. I heard about every name calling 23 years ago when I started. Tomboy being the most popular. These girls are often called men-women (homme-femme) and are sadly physically abused in the way that some people go up to them and grab their breasts to eventually say: ‘’ just wanted to check if you were a girl or a boy.’’ My admiration goes to them for persevering through it all to keep playing. In a way, they are where we were in Canada 25 years ago. They are not the problem. The society is the problem, through institutions that maintain the status quo of gender inequality. In 2011, Canadian girls are admired and congratulated when playing hockey. I told them to not give up; they are the pioneers in their sports like many women before me were in women’s hockey. One day, they can hope to see their daughters enjoy the right to play sport at the same level as the boys do. For now, they can become the women leaders of tomorrow in Bénin by continuing to combine sport and school in which they learn incredible assets of leadership, team work, self-confidence and perseverance. Through sport they will build a strong foundation for a promising future where they will be able to make a difference helping bringing equality in social institutions. Thomas Jefferson once said: ‘’every generation needs a new revolution.’’ I believe it can be led by these women who have been empowered through sport.

I believe that the girls were moved to see that female athletes everywhere experienced the same challenges and always found a way to battle to overcome them. In a very cute way, they asked if we could help put them in touch through the Internet with a Canadian National team football player which I will attempt to do!

Not the same running conditions

We returned to the hotel around 6pm and I was successful in convincing Robert to join me on a run. I was very thankful for his presence because I am not sure whether it is safe for a woman to run alone at night. And even if it was hypothetically not safe for tourists to do run,  I knew I could outrun him and he would be caught before me J Seriously, Robert is in great physical condition and is an adept of road biking. He has taken part in many races and fundraisers that last many days in a row for a distance you wish you could fly to.

We started our jog to realize that it sure was extremely humid and hotter than we thought. We also could feel and unfortunately inhale the polluted air created by the motor vehicles. Robert led us to the water where we could only hope it would have a fresher breeze. The problem is that sand beaches are extremely hard to run on because you sink 3 inches for every step you take. Instantly, the respect level I already hold for Martin and his 89k through South Africa and his trail runs of about the same distance increased again rapidly.

Although what a sight it was. The Golf of Guinea was beautiful and so was the beach even though in some parts there was a good amount of garbage accumulating higher on the shore. The amazing thing was to see those little crabs scared of us, running from the shore and heading straight back to the sea. I was worried I would step on one, they were so close to us. No need to say that the waves came over our feet a few times and that my nice new red and black Reebok Zig shoes were weighting about two pounds each by the end of the run and had an extra added coat of sand. It felt much better after the run than during. I looked like one of those Hollywood actors in a movie that has a perfect triangle of sweat on their t-shirt although mine was taking almost all of the front of the tshirt. Robert and I sat by the pool which is splendid before we got kicked out for being sweaty and sandy around it. Anyways it was time to shower and prepare for a nice dinner outside sharing stories about the Vancouver Olympic games and hearing all about Heather’s 4 Bobsleigh races that led to her gold medal. It was a great evening to cap off a second amazing day as guests of the Right to Play Bénin program.

Thank you for reading. À demain!