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Tanzania is Star at Fundraiser
Diplomatic Pouch / April 13, 2011

By Larry Luxner

A local Catholic charity put Tanzanian imagery to good use last month in a clever pitch to raise money for needy children in one of Washington’s worst neighborhoods.

The Christ Child Society collected $186,000 at its Serengeti Serenade Gala, held Feb. 26 at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md. A big chunk of that came from the $175 ticket price paid by each of the 350 people who attended the annual affair and dined on petite filet, crispy vidalia onions and balsamic glaze, Columbia crab cluster, wild mushroom risotto and green beans.

The balance was raised in a live auction hosted by Maryland Terrapins sportscaster Johnny Holliday that included everything from four VIP tickets to New York’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to a Tanzanian wildlife safari for two hosted by Regina Tours and Ethiopian Airways (winning bid: $9,000). Entertainment was provided by DJ Unique Dreams and the Nazu Dance Company Drummers.

The gala was organized by event chairwoman Mary Sentimore and chapter president Melanie Smeallie Mbuyi, a University of Nairobi graduate and former Peace Corps worker in Zaire (now Congo) who was also commercial attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa; for the past 20 years, she’s been with the World Bank.

Also in attendance was Mwanaidi S. Maajar — appointed Tanzania’s ambassador to the United States last fall.

“I was invited as a guest of honor because the theme of this evening is Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, home of the Great Animal Migration,” Maajar told the Pouch. “It’s a good choice, because the Tanzanian Embassy is now promoting the Serengeti. There has been a lot of outcry about the government build a road that would allegedly destroy wildlife. But it’s not true. We are not building it through the migration route. My president has said this over and over.”

Maajar, appointed to her current job half a year ago, was previously Tanzania’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom. She said tourism is one of her country’s most important foreign-exchange earners, and that the United States is now the top source of tourism to Tanzania.

Sentimore, a conference planner by profession, said the banquet is her group’s major fundraiser for the year.

“Everything we raise goes to help high-risk kids,” she said. “Each guild of the Christ Child Society supports a school, and our school is Don Bosco. We buy clothes, sponsor coat drives, help out in emergency situations and volunteer our time. The school has even changed its prayer to include the women of the Christ Child Society.

The organization was founded in 1887 by Mary Virginia Merrick, who aspired to “take care of all the little children who had no one to take care of them.” Despite a disability that left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, she and her friends began a tradition of giving Christmas gifts to destitute families that otherwise would have nothing.

“Miss Mary,” as she was known to her friends and the thousands of Washington-area children she helped during her lifetime, eventually established a camp for poor children to enjoy a respite from city heat. A convalescent home for sick children and a residential care facility for emotionally disturbed youngsters became part of the Christ Child Society’s work. The tradition continues today, with a school counseling program that provides mental health services to inner-city Catholic schoolkids and their families.

Recently, the group established a recreation center in Anacostia, the Mary Virginia Merrick Center — whose goal is to enhance the lives of at-risk youth through sports, art, music and other organized programs.

Ambassador Maajar, incidentally, is promoting a VIP safari of her own to Tanzania. The trip, scheduled for June 30-July 8 to coincide with the Great Animal Migration, offers participants a chance to observe the “Big 5” in their natural habitat while visiting Serengeti as well as Ngorongoro Crater, the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Those who join Maajar on her “Discover Tanzania” adventure will also enjoy a private dinner with Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete and the president of Zanzibar, Ali Mohamed Shein; participate in the opening day of “Saba Saba,” Tanzania’s premier international trade fair, and attend a VIP reception for the Zanzibar International Film Festival, billed as East Africa’s largest cultural event.

The price for the week-long safari will be around $5,000, not including airfare. Maajar told the Pouch she expects 15 to 25 people to sign up. “We are limiting the size of the safari to provide each participant with a truly special experience, so please let us know as soon as possible if you are interested in coming home with me to Tanzania.”

For more information, contact Renny Hunt at

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