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Rwandan Dance Troupe Cheers Inmates

May 26, 2000

PURDY, Wash. (AP) _ A Rwandan dance troupe that suffered through a savage civil war went behind bars at a woman’s prison here with a special message to those who had been jailed for violent offenses: peace.

Dancers, drummers and singers from the National Ballet of Rwanda were brought to the Washington Corrections Center for Women on Wednesday as part of Keeping the Faith, a project for imprisoned women.

The troupe was accompanied by Eugene Kayihura, an official from the Rwandan Embassy in Washington, D.C., who said the performers included Hutus, Tutsis and Pygmies, ethnic groups that were locked in a civil war that claimed about 800,000 lives in the mid-1990s.

Now, when they perform, ``you can’t tell who is who,″ said Kayihura. ``What better way to heal than they’re all together? They sing the same songs. They speak the same language. They are one people.″

The lesson was not lost on inmates who watched the three men and 10 women dancing barefoot in the prison gymnasium, wearing waist-length wigs made of raffialike material and waving spears and shields.

``It reached my soul. They looked so happy,″ said inmate Ramona Dillard, 33.

``It’s like, with all the adversity, they were able to forget and reconcile,″ said Honey Herman, 21.

The dancers said the place did not look at all like a prison, told the prisoners they all seemed very young and asked about their crimes. The inmates answered, saying theft, kidnapping and aggravated first-degree murder.

One prisoner said her punishment was living with the knowledge she had killed someone and with being separated from family. The Rwandans nodded and told the women to keep faith and pray hard.

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