Rwanda children's choir opens tour in Pasco (w/ gallery)

KENNEWICK — Laughing children creating a joyful racket as they play isn't the image most might imagine when thinking of Rwanda.

But Tri-Citians have a chance to see a few of those children dancing and singing with the Asante Children's Choir for the launch of its first U.S. tour in the Tri-Cities this weekend.

Pastors Monte Ingersoll and Mel Haug of the Living Room Community Church in Kennewick partnered with international nonprofit Africa Mission Alliance to create the choir about 2 1/2 years ago.

Ingersoll and Haug went to Rwanda in July 2008 to audition about 400 children for the 24-member choir. They are the next generation after the 1994 genocide that left 1 million Tutsis dead within 100 days, Ingersoll said.

There are a lot of stories of the horror of the 1994 genocide, but not many of the hope in Rwanda, he said. These children illustrate that hope.

Rwanda has received support from many Americans, and Asante -- which means "thank you" in Swahili -- is a chance for the children to say thank you, he said.

They sing in English and Kinyarwanda, the local language in Rwanda, and dance traditional dances.

Audrey Igiraneza, 12, of Butare, Rwanda, said she's glad to get the chance to teach people about her culture and country. She said it's known as "a country of 1,000 hills."

Audrey -- who dreams of becoming an emergency room doctor -- said she's excited to get the chance to help other people in Rwanda, like those who are poor or children who don't have parents.

The children will perform in churches and schools around the Tri-Cities for the next two weeks, before heading to Seattle, Spokane, Portland, California and a second Tri-City visit around Christmas. The tour ends Jan. 20.

The donations will go to support Hope Village, a sustainable village for widows and orphans that the Africa Mission Alliance is building near Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

William Ngabo, the nonprofit's co-founder and international representative, said they already have built a primary school and hope to add a secondary school, skills center and church. He said 90 percent of donations go to services.

The organization also is hoping to find more people willing to sponsor Rwandan children. Ingersoll said his Kennewick congregation of 700 is sponsoring about 250 children in Rwanda.

"Our church feels like this is family now," he said.

Sponsored children receive medical care and education. A sponsorship costs $32 a month per child, and their parents also receive medical care, education and job training.

The organization has about 600 sponsored children and 400 more in their programs who aren't sponsored, Ngabo said. They also help about 400 widows.

The children in the choir live together in a home in Butare with house parents, Ingersoll said. They attend school and practice their singing and dancing.

While in the Tri-Cities, the Asante Children's Choir is also recording a CD that will be sold during the tour, Haug said. They started recording Thursday.

Eric Bizimana, 12, of Kamonyi, Rwanda, said he is excited for people to get the chance to watch the choir sing and dance and see how happy they are.

Eric said before he joined the choir, he lived with his aunt and helped her by collecting firewood and hauling water. "I like singing for God and dancing for him," he said.

The group's first public concert is 6 p.m. Sunday at Pasco High School. Admission is free but donations will be collected.

For more information or to donate, go to asantechoir.org/ or call Living Room Community Church at 582-4818.

The tour schedule is at static.asantechoir.org/post/98574519/choir-tour-dates.

* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com