Field of Play: Sport speaks volumes in Benin, West Africa | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: Sport speaks volumes in Benin, West Africa

Posted: Friday, September 20, 2013 | 07:29 AM

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Sport and play are proving to be valuable tools in the healthy development of young people in the West African nation of Benin. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters) Sport and play are proving to be valuable tools in the healthy development of young people in the West African nation of Benin. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

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With the help of organizations like Right To Play, the notion of sport and play promoting healthy learning and development in young people is catching on in Benin, West Africa.

We're in Benin, one of Africa's stable democracies. The day arrives as a matter of organized chaos. In this West African nation of 9.8 million, dozens of languages are spoken, but the only one somewhat familiar to me is a version of French. There is noise, insane traffic, extreme poverty and voodoo is still prevalent here.

Still, since Right To Play's arrival in Benin in 2001, at the refugee camps of Kpomasse, the understanding that children's relationship with sport can lead to the healthy development of the entire country is catching on.

There are now 32,000 young people involved in weekly, play-based activities, run by some 768 leaders and coaches. 

"Parents once said they sent their children to school not to play, but to learn," said Romeo Essou, the head of Right To Play's operation in Benin.

"We have succeeded in convincing them that sport aids in a child's learning and development."

Essou's thoughts are echoed by Christianne, who is to be our guide to the play session in the community of Ouidah.

"In the beginning for parents, sport and play was not a priority," Christianne said. "They had other problems to fix in their community, but by teaching sport and play, we give the children some tools to solve the problems."

LIVE BLOG: Right To Play in West Africa 

Part of the equation is the sheer joy and abandon on exhibit as the children gather on a dusty field in the desolation that exists one-and-a-half hours along a rocky road from the city of Cotonou. Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden and hurdler Perdita Felicien are welcomed by clapping and dancing and hailed as champions worth looking up to. They are drawn into simple games of limbo and tag, but there is a message from the coaches concerning the spread of infectious disease and staying safe from harm even as the kids join in the spontaneity of it all.

Everyone pays attention. Everyone takes part. Everyone is smiling and singing.

"It seems to me that, sometimes, a lot of play is too structured," van Koeverden said as he takes a break from the rigours of the limbo dance.

"This is more about being goofy and play for play's sake, which leads to acceptance and inclusion from peers."

'Important lessons' 

Felicien, meantime, sits in a circle and is eventually drawn to the centre to celebrate with the few little girls who dot the assemblage of young boys.

"Sport was always this high ideal of performance for me, but I'm learning that it offers everyday important lessons that have to do with self-esteem," she said.

It's the common ground that Right To Play seems to foster in the shadow of the tin-roofed shanties that surround this meagre field of play in Ouidah. The children don't have much in the way of material things. The soccer shirts and brightly coloured headbands they wear are their most prized possessions, but so is this universal language they speak and share with the world champions in their company on this day.

For the time being, they're all teammates -- and have a place in the centre of the action that sport provides for them.

Follow Scott Russell on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay     

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