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They Arrived as Dancers, They'll Depart as Friends

Maasai Troupe Makes Impression on Tour

By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page GZ24

Already there is lore about the Maasai dance troupe, and three days still remain before the performers wrap up their 35-day Washington area tour.

There was the Takoma Park woman who decided, after watching the group perform about two weeks into the tour, that she would sell her 1996 Jeep Cherokee and send the proceeds back to Kenya with the villagers-turned-performers.

There's the Darnestown nurse who hosted all nine members of Friends of Sironka African Dance Troupe for three days and now has a goat meat story to tell. All Brie McCabe could find was goat carved thick as steaks instead of thin, the preferred Kenyan way. She knows because she went to high school there, while her father worked in Nairobi as a USAID health official.

The night of the goat dinner, McCabe sat at the table with her husband, mother and three kids, working knives on the tough meat. The Maasai looked at her for social cues. None of the family members speaks Ma, the language of the Maasai, and only Nicholas Sironka, founder of the three-year-old troupe and a former Fulbright scholar, speaks English well.

"This may be one of those situations where I'm kind of glad I don't know what people are saying," McCabe joked.

The tension finally gave way to laughter. Everybody ate goat with their hands.

At the conclusion of its five weeks here, the troupe will have stayed in the homes of more than 20 Montgomery County families and been assisted by dozens of volunteers in the course of staging 60 performances for a total estimated audience of 20,000 people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and in Washington. Dressed in reds and blues and bedecked in beaded adornments, the troupe performs traditional Maasai warrior dances and songs about cattle herding and daily life.

The performances are raising money to pay for the public school education of Maasai girls, who otherwise are married at 12 or 13, and to install village wells and latrines. About 300,000 Maasai live in Kenya, about 10 percent of the country's population, but an accurate count of the number living in bush villages is unavailable, Sironka said. Historically nomadic warriors renowned for their bravery, the Maasai in time began herding cattle and settling in villages. Some Maasai traditions were lost in the exposure to modern culture. One of Sironka's goals is to help keep the culture and language alive.

Weeks before arriving at Dulles International Airport on Jan. 16, the troupe's plans for enhancing village life in Kenya began circulating around Montgomery. An e-mail campaign organized by Class Acts Arts, a nonprofit arts outreach organization in Silver Spring, spawned efforts to reach out to former foreign service members with experience in Kenya, women's groups, churches and civic groups, said Joan Burns, associate director of Class Acts.

With financing available through Class Acts, Burns rented a 15-passenger van. She soon had 15 volunteers to drive it (or navigate for Sironka, who has an international driver's license), 19 volunteers to house the group overnight and 10 families lined up to prepare group meals in their homes.

"People here have really just embraced this group in a way that I've never had the opportunity to experience," said Burns, who learned about the troupe through a friend. "There were so many families in Takoma Park volunteering to be overnight hosts, that we have shift number one and shift number two."

Sitting in the kitchen of Darnestown hostess McCabe, Sironka said Maasai typically live in mud huts without indoor toilets, relieving themselves in the bush. If it is daytime and men are around, women usually wait for the cover of darkness, Sironka said. They sometimes get infections as a result of poor sanitation.

"Our terrain is open grasslands, and it is very rare that you find a bush where you can hide," Sironka said. "I want to touch women's lives. They don't even have sanitary pads. Why? Because it's expensive."

Women who have not gone to school and have married and had children as teenagers do not have many options for improving their lives, Sironka said. Fathers and husbands may stop girls and grown women from taking advantage of educational or financial opportunities. That's what happened to a woman that Sironka had selected for the tour. Three days before the troupe was to fly out of Nairobi, the woman's husband refused to let her leave, Sironka said.

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