After months of logistic wrestling, the generous donations from Cyclingnews readers finally arrived in Benin. You sent us bicycles, wheels, tires, clothing, and helmets from all corners of the world. It's pretty amazing.
We couldn't have cut things any closer on this end. In the final weeks of my Peace Corps service in Benin, I knew the container of donations should be arriving any day in Ghana. We'd coordinated with the Village Bicycle Project (www.villagebicycleproject.org) to piggy-pack on their delivery of used bicycles to Ghana, and we eagerly awaited the news that the container had come off the boat. Well, weeks went by, and the boat still wasn't there. Apparently the Accra port was pretty congested for the holidays. I started getting pretty nervous during my last week in country.
Finally, four days before my flight out of Benin, we got the call. I piled into a taxi with Coach Gandaho and the secretary of the Cycling Federation, Roger Zounon. We traversed Benin and Togo, finally arriving in Ghana late at night. The next morning, we woke early to meet the good folks at the Village Bicycle Project. We arrived to a bee's nest of activity: piles of bicycles surrounding the shipping container, and people running in every direction with bicycles and wheels and parts. Amidst all this chaos stood George, the coordinator of VBP in Ghana. Somehow he orchestrated the unloading of the container and the allotment of bikes to various individuals who sell and distribute them throughout Ghana.
Tucked neatly to the side, we found that special pile of bikes with Benin tags on them. We were so excited to explore our treasure pile! Ventilated helmets... sturdy wheels.... fresh tires, even a few complete bikes! All this stuff will be put to great use.
Thanks to friends on the Ghanaian National team, we got in touch with a driver who would help us get the parts back to Benin. We loaded everything into a minivan, took the parts back to a friend's house for the evening.
Despite our letter from the Beninese Ministry of Sports, we knew it would be quite a feat getting these parts across two borders the following day. And so it was. At dozens of police checkpoints and customs stations, officers sorted through our equipment. The Ghanaians seemed cool with our explanation, but the Togolese officers weren't quite so understanding. Why should they let the Beninese cycling team get a free pass through Togo? It took quite a bit tactical discussion and cash under table to finally reach Benin. But reach it we did, and now the equipment is securely stored at the Beninese “Olympic Center”. Gandaho and the leaders of the federation will inventory everything create a responsible plan for distributing the equipment.
I am confident the equipment will find good homes with the riders on the team. I've encouraged Coach Gandaho to focus on the new young riders. While some of the older riders have conceded to playing second fiddle, the younger guys are dreaming big. They might not be the best today, but I know they have the potential to win big in a few years. Gandaho is excited about that plan, and he wants to use the new donated equipment to reward for the riders who commit themselves to training.
The success of this equipment donation was bittersweet for me, because it also marks the end of my time in Benin. I finished my Peace Corps service the day after we returned from Ghana, and now I'm already back with my family in Switzerland for the holidays. The boys of Team Benin have left a mark on me, and they're determination will always inspire me. It's been a pleasure sharing their stories with the CyclingNews community!
Although I've said goodbye to my Peace Corps Service, I haven't left Africa for good. I'll be returning next month to embark on a new endeavor: the Pulaku Documentary Project. Through my time in Benin, I became close friends with a young Fulani man. The Fulani are fascinating tribe of nomadic herders who life throughout West Africa. Their lifestyle is threatened by climate change and loss of pasture lands. Beginning in January, we'll be traversing West Africa by motorcycle, visiting Fulani camps to share their stories via photo, video and ambient sound. Check out our website and order a photograph to support the project.
Thanks for reading, thanks for supporting Team Benin, and godspeed!