Burundi's Great Mother: Maggie Barankitse

There's so much bad news from around the world this month that it's important to remember the less reported work of heroes. One is a remarkable woman working in Burundi: Marguerite Barankitse.
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There's so much bad news from around the world this month that it's important to remember the less reported work of heroes. One is a remarkable woman working in Burundi: Marguerite Barankitse.

She's a force of nature, a woman who accepts no barriers to what she thinks is right and needed to help Burundi's children. By dint of determination, energy, creativity, love, and faith, she has built an organization and community, Maison Shalom, where over 20,000 children, most of them orphaned by Burundi's violent civil war, have received care, education, and a solid start in life. Burundi's president calls her the nation's mother, knowing well that she always stands up for children. But people also call her Crazy Maggie because she is so determined to do what others see as impossible. Recognized as a remarkable peacebuilder by several international awards, Maggie Barankitse sets an example of what a woman, inspired by her faith, can do.
Maggie's story is hair-raising. After months of rumblings of trouble and years of tension between Burundi's two main ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis, on a terrible day in October, 1993, the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda died in a plane crash and chaos erupted. Maggie was with the seven children she had adopted as people fled the killers and the army. She took refuge in the Archbishop of Ruyigi's quarters but the rebels got into the compound. Maggie hid the children in cupboards in the church sanctuary as the hordes of invaders killed over 70 people on the spot. They demanded that she tell them where the children were but she refused. They hesitated because Maggie was a Tutsi, like them, but they tied her to a chair and stripped her naked. They beheaded her best friend and threw her head on Maggie's lap.

Maggie emerged from those horrible days with indelible memories of the killing and brutality but with children to care for. On top of the seven she'd already adopted, many more came to her. Soon she had 25 children, then 80, then 200, all of whom needed to be fed, housed, and clothed.

She scrounged everywhere to find food to feed them and clothes they could wear. She went to the bishop's house and to the Belgian Embassy asking for food and land. Orphanages were not a solution for the children in those times, so she started Maison Shalom which grew organically into a compound with houses, land to farm, and a small school. It was the children who named the compound Shalom; they heard on the radio that shalom meant peace, which is what they most wanted. Maggie worked to create a family structure, with houses for the children, wherever possible integrating children back into their original families. Some children even live with the families that killed their parents because they were able to forgive.

Believing deeply in education as the key to a chance for a better life, Maggie started her own school. After twelve years children have gone on to university, and some have studied abroad. They come back as lawyers and doctors. Centers called Angel Homes now run in different regions of Burundi, some run by children who now have grown up and returned to help others.
Maison Shalom was born of necessity and urgent demands. Gradually it took on a legal structure. Since 2004 it has been a registered, legal, tax-paying institution, a non-governmental organization with 300 full-time employees. It has an international presence as an NGO based in Luxembourg. The scope increases steadily and in response to needs. For example, there were frustrations going to and from Bujumbura to get money from the bank. Maggie was robbed of cash she was carrying, so she started her own bank. Today there are three banks at Maison Shalom, offering microcredit to women. People were sick, so they started a clinic. One day, sixteen mothers died in childbirth so Maggie, angered, persuaded the military to build a hospital, asking them what they thought would happen when they died if they did nothing good. A recent development is preschools, because they know that early education is so important. Facing the threat of HIV and AIDS, which also leaves children orphaned and in need, Maison Shalom has responded.

Maggie sees Burundi's women as the nation's main source of strength and hope, candles in the darkness. Women, she says, run homes for children and care for their families, no matter what happens and what extraordinary effort is required. They understand what reconciliation is about, without explaining. They understand what a community is and what it needs to survive and thrive.

Maggie's faith is her inspiration and her strength. If she were not a Christian, she says, she would likely have committed suicide long ago. Whenever she faces difficulties, she goes to church, and prays to God to remove the obstacles in her path. And she feels God answers her prayers. It is her faith that gives her the peace and confidence to hope in the darkest moments for a spirit of love that will allow us to forgive, and to be reconciled.

Maggie does not hesitate to challenge the bishops, especially when they hesitate to act for those who are in need: children, mothers who are suffering, refugees returning home who have lost everything. The Church has land and it has resources and should use them better, she argues. She sees the first principle of her faith as love, and is inspired by St. Augustine, who said "Love and do what you wish." For Maggie, promoting life means that when faced with choices, we must respond by looking to human realities, not to dogmatism. It may not be good to distribute condoms in the streets, but people see moral choices in different ways. A hospital is there to give life. Schools are there to teach about conscience. When a mother's life is at stake, there are choices to be made. In the same way that it offers vaccination to prevent disease, the hospital gives family planning devices to those who seek them so they can bring children into the world who will have enough love and enough food and so that the family will not face malnutrition. The Church, Maggie argues, should not forbid, should not condemn. The life and death issues of health and family are not just for bishops. They involve the core of the human character, and must be handled with love, community, and compassion.

Maggie sees Burundi's conflicts more rooted in poverty than ethnic differences, but sees more to the story of violence, corruption, anger, and tension that Burundi has faced than a simple reaction to poverty. But unless Burundi deals with poverty and has an honest government that cares about people and tells the truth, she sees no hope for a better future. People's hatred is built both on fear and want and on a sense of unfairness in issues like distribution of land. Helping children, for Maggie, goes hand in hand with addressing the political challenges her nation faces.

Maggie's theme song is "Imagine," by John Lennon. She imagines Burundi with well-cared for children, decent and honest politicians, and social harmony. She wants to build a peaceful, just, and fair nation. Maggie never hesitates to bring home tough truths, no matter who she speaks to and what power they hold. Love, she argues, does not require that we carry the world, but it should compel us to stand up and fight for dignity. With enough money in the world for weapons, surely there is enough for hospitals. Where, then, is the love we speak about?

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