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Sals Runners Go to Africa

Nick Piro, Staff Writer

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Africa…probably one of the most unusual places for a group of 17 years olds, a middle-aged oblate, a math teacher, and an over-enthusiastic-Florida-State-fan-turned campus minister to end up for eight days, but it happened. When Father Beretta introduced the idea to the cross country team, it was met with a mix of enthusiasm, confusion, and rolled eyes by parents; however, all questions were answered, all paperwork filed, shots injected, and the promise of adventure was on our minds. We were off to Africa.
As many have asked before we left and after we got back, what was the purpose of this trip? In the words of students, “To go to Africa!,” parents, “It would give our sons a new cultural experience,” Mr. Mazzio, “It’d be cool, I guess.” All joking aside, the experience was an opportunity to broaden the Salesian mentality through the B.R.I.D.G.E program that Salesianum offers. The term B.R.I.D.G.E stands for Building Relationships in Diverse Global Environments and to say that the BRIDGE to Benin fulfilled all of the requirements described is an understatement.
Our first taste of international travel was not in the country itself, but in the not-so beautiful airport of Newark, New Jersey. There we said our final goodbyes via phone to our parents and friends and we were in the air in the late hours of the night. Though the flight was overnight and we all wanted to sleep, the promise of a new, unexplored land in the mind of 18 and 17 year olds kept us awake and playing Flappy Golf and random chants of, “Aut,” and “Asphalt 8.” Yet when we finally landed in Paris, we were greeted by a hotel, croissants, and a fancy pool to relax before our next leg of the journey.
Like the blink of an eye, we were in the air again headed to our final destination- Benin. To give a little geography lesson, Benin is located on the western coast of Africa next to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ghana, all of whom speak English, which wasn’t the case in Benin where French was the spoken language. When we landed in the Cotonou airport, the largest city in Benin, we were greeted by a blast of 85 degree winds and the fantastic laugh of Father Guillaume, the founder of the Salesian Marathon, and the warm smile of Father Kooz, a South African priest, and numerous novices of the oblates. Customs and security flew by and we met the heart of our journey throughout the country- a 15 person white van and the most skilled driver that Father Guillaume could find. We departed for our first home base in the form of the Center for Faith and Peace, almost like a CFJ hotel, where my room was the only one to have air conditioning. The next morning, under the daze of a lack of sleep and adjusting to the time change, we went for one of two runs in the country, accompanied by a French group running the marathon as well. We toured the city of Cotonou in the morning hours and returned back to the Center for Faith
and Peace only to leave it a short time later.
We began our journey north to the town of Parakou, where the marathon was held. However, as an opportunity to be classic American tourists, we split our trip up into two days to immerse ourselves into the culture and history of Benin. The slave port of the Gate of No Return and the route taken by the slaves was one of the most eye-opening experiences in our lives. As Americans, we’ve all learned about the process they went through, but to walk and ride the route taken gave a whole new perspective to the idea of slavery. The foreign idea of the religion of
voodoo was also explored in all the python-filled, tree-altar glory it is. Once in Parakou, we shared a meal with the whole town and local dancers gave us a show through traditional folk songs and choreography. We even met a Canadian. Finally to close out the night, we met our host families for the next four days. All the most caring and loving that Parakou had to offer.
The next morning was met with the heat of the African sun and 13.2 miles later it was safe to say that half marathons are a challenge, but half marathons in Africa brings the challenge to the next level. Later that afternoon, we assumed the topics of the whole town, from dance-off’s with Matt Drake to being the face of new memes in Parakou. The days to come involved the typical life of the people of Parakou- Sunday mass, school, bustling markets, and family dinners. After our time in Parakou, we departed for a new endeavour- the Pendjari National Park, but first a little pit stop.
The sisters associated with the oblates ran an isolated school up in the north, about an hour away from the park. There we were greeted by ethnic dances of the children’s background and their love for balloons, bubbles, and stickers, all the products of Steve Banko. The journey to the park was not a smooth one, but nothing on the trip was ever smooth, which wasn’t all that bad. Cars breaking down caused some trouble, but allowed for beautiful views of the Atlantic ocean and a bonding experience in an isolated town at 9 o’clock at night between Father Beretta and his favorite students. Once we got to the park successfully, we viewed majestic animals that zoos could not do
justice. Lionesses, hippos, wildebeests, baboons, and crocodiles culminated together to one of the most surreal experiences of my lifetime. Our final nights in Benin were filled with new cultural experiences with the promise of a growing oblate community, dialogue in a mosque between Christians and Muslims, and choosing some sweet, traditional African “Sunday’s best.”
As we gathered to leave for Paris, I was reluctant to give up this experience. It gave myself and my brothers, both old and young, a new opportunity to explore themselves and a whole new continent and that is an experience that nothing can replace. We closed off our authentic African experience with a sub-par cheeseburger and one of the best milkshakes that I’ve ever had. The BRIDGE to Benin was certainly a success and will be in the years to come.

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Sals Runners Go to Africa