Musical Knights bring an Irish twist to Tanzanian relief

It's not often you hear of a traditional Irish band that features the name of an impoverished African nation in its title.

But the Tanzania Ceili Band, which performs lively Irish music for social dancing, isn't your average group.


The seven-member band was formed to raise money to build a medical clinic, Catholic school and orphanage in a remote region of Tanzania in East Africa.

The musicians bolster the fundraising efforts of the Tanzanian Children's Project, a nonprofit formed five years ago by Knights of Columbus Columbia Council 7559.


The compound that the local council is raising funds to build in the rural village of Mahida — which will be known as Our Lady of Fatima Children's Center — is "a pretty massive concept, and it comes with a $500,000 price tag," said Timothy Lynch, project president since its inception.

That's why the organization's fifth St. Patrick's Day Celebration on March 22 would benefit greatly from community support, said Lynch, a Clarksville resident.

Lynch, a Boston native of Irish descent, came up with the idea of tying a fundraiser to St. Patrick's Day revelry. With a catered dinner featuring corned beef and cabbage and shepherd's pie, along with performances by two bands and Irish dancers, the event has contributed to the project since 2010.

Lynch's wife, Claudette Sikora, took her cue from her husband's Irish theme and formed the Tanzania Ceili Band to perform at the first St. Patrick's Day Celebration in 2010.

"The relationship between the band and the project is symbiotic," said Sikora, who plays button accordion with the group.

While members hold formal practices instead of approaching their music casually, as traditional ceili bands do, she said, they "stay true to Irish traditions."

"Ceili" (ppronounced KAY-lee) is a Gaelic word meaning a social gathering with music.

Musicians in the Tanzania Ceili Band play fiddle, accordion, mandolin, guitar, piano, wooden flute, tin whistle and hammered dulcimer. This year, guest performers will join the band on banjo, accordion and bodhran drum.


"American Irish traditions involve parades, green hats and songs like 'Danny Boy' and 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling' — which are great," Sikora said. "Our [band's] music goes way, way back to the heart and soul of the culture."

The band plays traditional jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas and waltzes, she said.

The Tanzania Ceili Band has also branched out to take part in other performances and competitions, and was the 2013 winner for Celtic ensemble at the Deer Creek Fiddlers' Convention, which is held each year in Westminster.

A Columbia band called Dileab Phriseil, (Gaelic for "precious heritage") will also play at the St. Patrick's Day Celebration, and members of the Broesler School of Irish Dance will perform.

The project's genesis

The long-term commitment from the Columbia Council started with a plea in 2008 from the Rev. Mark Mlay, a Tanzania native, for aid to some of the 700 orphans living in eight parish villages near Mount Kilimanjaro.


The children, some of whom have since been taken in by relatives, have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis, the priest told council members. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 1.5 million orphans in Tanzania.

Lynch said he knew right away that he wanted to help.

He attributes his feelings about the project's goals to his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana after college, an experience that affected him deeply.

"I have, from that point on, had an affection for Africa, and have always wanted to return in some way," he said.

So far, the Malowa Medical Clinic, a 3,200-square-foot cinder block dispensary, has been built and is serving adults and children in a limited capacity as the rural facility awaits an electrical hookup, Lynch said.

Support the Poor, a county nonprofit led by former local resident and Kenyan native Mary Wandia, has built a convent that is home to 40 orphans in collaboration with the Tanzanian Children's Project, he said.


"But you don't just build and walk away," Lynch said of the clinic and other planned structures. "You keep plugging away, paying salaries and paying for supplies."

Mlay, who is currently serving a church in Jupiter, Fla., said he still gets calls from his hometown relaying how many people have died there each week.

But the Tanzanian Children's Project "has made a lot of difference," he said.

"That small clinic is helping us to control [health] outcomes and to reduce the number of people dying from illness," he said. "The Knights of Columbus are the kind of people who, once they begin something, want to see it through."

Lynch said he and Sikora traveled to Tanzania in September 2012 on a working vacation to tour the Rombo district, where the clinic is located.

"It's difficult to keep all this going by email," Lynch said of the project's investment in Tanzania. "We were happy to see the building for ourselves and to meet the parish priest, who gave us a tour."

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Wayne Thalasinos said he and his family chose to support the project "because of its focus to provide essential medical care in a location where care is so critically needed."

The project is currently raising funds to install a solar electricity generation system at the medical clinic to supply backup power for vaccine refrigeration, lighting, and cellphone and computer charging, he said.

Plus, Thalasinos said, the celebration offers great food, camaraderie and entertainment, making it an enjoyable way to donate to a great cause.

Vicki Cofield-Aber, a clinical social worker and educator of African descent, said, "I am keenly aware of the devastating effects of poverty and how it cripples not only the child, but future generations of families.

"I give to the Tanzanian Children's Project and encourage others to give so that these children … can have a brighter future with healthy bodies and minds that will break the burden of poverty," she said.

Lynch summed up the Knights' commitment to the work: "The Tanzanian Children's Project is about being involved in a cause that gives people with limited resources, especially vulnerable children, an opportunity to succeed later in life," he said.


For tickets to the March 22 event, to be held at 5:30 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, 10431 Twin Rivers Road, go to by March 18. For information on future fundraising events, including a Leprechaun Charity Run in Ellicott City on June 7, go to