In a mix of modern and traditional, the two wives of African dignitaries carefully lifted their teal- and rose-colored robes as they stepped out of the stretch limousine and walked into The Mall.
Accompanied by a six-member entourage that included an interpreter and bodyguard, Constance Sibomana and Valerie Kavakure eyed curiously the string of shops, craft carts and department stores.
Sibomana, 35, is married to Adrien Sibomana, the prime minister of the east African country of Burundi. Kavakure, 37, is married to its ambassador, Julien Kavakure. The two women were treated in full diplomatic style to a three-hour tour of Columbia on Monday as guests ofthe Maryland Museum of African Art.
"The embassy has been very supportive of the museum," said Doris Ligon, founder and executive director of MMAA. "The ambassador asked us if we would play host and we said we would be delighted. Besides, I love showing this town."
Following a morning reception at Oakland Manor, home of the museum, Sibomana presented Ligon with a pictorial book of Burundi.
"We are very happy they are promoting Africa and art because we are African," said Sibomana in French, the language of Burundi. "But you need to add more and represent all African countries."
The whirlwind tour continued at Vantage House, where French-speaking resident Virginia Braddock accompanied the group through the facility. Although impressed bythe accommodations, both guests admitted that in their country the family takes care of its elderly.
"It's better to live with the family -- if there's a choice," said Sibomana. "But if there is not, then this kind of center is good to have."
Twenty minutes later, the group zipped over to Jeffer's Hill Elementary School, where Kristen Fields, 11, and William Cannady, 10, nervously greeted the entourage with roses, school buttons and a short welcome speech. Students in several classrooms politely stood and recited a well-rehearsed "bon jour."
The women were visibly struck by the open classrooms.
"It isthe first time we saw that system," said Kavakure.
"We thought itmight be too open for the children to concentrate," added Sibomana. "The teachers and staff must be very good and well-organized to hold their attention."
But the two seemed to be particularly taken withThe Mall, fascinated by the array of small boutiques and large department stores. The quick walk-through was highlighted by a presentation by Hecht's of gift baskets of perfumes and makeup.
"It's a big store, bigger than any store I have seen in Europe," said Sibomana of Hecht's. "It's like little stores within a big one. I like the way itis arranged, the interior and decorations. In my country, we only have small shops."
Kavakure was impressed by the mall's 20th anniversary celebration, a fund-raiser for the Columbia Foundation. "It is nice that the mall isn't only commercial but works for the community as well."
Following a quick drive past Howard Community College andHoward County General Hospital, the group stopped at Nature's Way Day Care Center, where they peeked in on sleeping preschoolers. In another room, 20 4-year-olds gave an out-of-sync recital of "Four Little Ducks."
The tour culminated in a catered lunch for 30 at Ligon's house and an exchange of gifts, including a People Tree pin for each.
Sibomana thanked Ligon and interpreter Toni Dumas with colorful cotton fabric from Burundi but diplomatically refused to single out anyone place as the most intriguing.
"We enjoyed everything," she said. "We got an occasion to see different things. I would surely like to come back if I had another opportunity."
Although Kavakure has lived in Potomac, Montgomery County, for the 18 months since her husband became ambassador, this was Sibomana's first visit to the United States since her husband became prime minister three years ago. They arrived in Washington on Sunday and will leave tomorrow for New York,Canada and Belgium.
"It has been a magnificent day," said Ligon during lunch. "It was really a privilege to bring together people of different cultures."