“When they killed the president, I had nowhere to go, because I am a Tutsi,” Maggy said, smiling a wide, self-deprecating smile.
We were sitting three weeks ago in the office of Maison Shalom, in a sprawling compound in the provincial capital of Ruyigi, and Marguerite Barankitse – “Maggy” to just about everyone in Burundi – was telling me about the war. In 1993, after the assassination of President Melchior Ndabaye, Burundi was in a state of panic. The killing of the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president sparked a wave of reprisal killings. Tutsis were being targeted all across Burundi. In Ruyigi, thousands fled the city for a nearby military garrison, hoping to be protected by the Tutsi-dominated army.
But Maggy refused to join them. “No, I am not a Hutu or a Tutsi,” she told them. “I am a woman, and the noble vocation of a woman is to give the life.” A former teacher, she had adopted seven orphans from both ethnic backgrounds. “I cannot abandon my Hutu children,” she said.
So she stayed in her home and rallied friends and neighbors – Hutu and Tutsi intellectuals – to stay behind with her. “Don’t go. Stay here. We will protect each other,” she told them. As the violence intensified, Maggy and her neighbors sought sanctuary in the home of Ruyigi’s bishop. “I was thinking it was a sacred place,” she said to me. For the first time, her voice began to crack.
After a wave of bloodletting against Tutsis, the Burundian army responded. Their reaction across the country was swift and brutal. When the soldiers arrived at the bishop’s home in Ruyigi, they felt none of Maggy’s solidarity with their Hutu neighbors. She watched them kill indiscriminately – old men and young mothers, infants and small children. “In front of me, they killed all those friends that I protected,” she said to me, dabbing at the corner of her eye. When the killing stopped, 72 Hutus were left dead.
Years later, Maggy was oddly calm as she told her story. “Today, when I talk about that, I am not so angry,” she said to me. “It can seem to a foreign person that I am cynique.” But Maggy’s incredible journey began that day in the bishop’s house. She watched the killings and refused to be overcome by anger and despair. “Since this day, my life has changed completely,” she said to me. It was on that day that Maison Shalom was born.
What began as an orphanage, with Maggy adopting the 25 children whose parents were killed in the bishop’s home that day, has turned into an ambitious project for rural development in Ruyigi. Maggy has built two guesthouses, Villa des Anges and Frieden Guest House, staffed by orphans (“Maggy’s children,” as they’re known in Ruyigi). She’s built a massive, modern hospital complex, which attracts patients from across Burundi, and from across the nearby Tanzanian border. And she’s built the Cité des Anges – the “City of Angels” – a complex that houses a movie theater, a library, a computer center, a hair salon, a tailor’s atelier de couture, and an auto body shop – all staffed by children and young adults orphaned by AIDS and war.
The need in Burundi is overwhelming. UNICEF estimated that there were 600,000 orphans living in the country in 2007 – a staggering figure for a nation of just 8 million. Maggy takes them into her “House of Peace,” feeds them, schools them; by Maison Shalom’s estimates, she has helped more than 30,000 orphans since 1993. (A video about her work can be found on YouTube here.) Most of her businesses turn a profit; occasionally there are contributions from abroad, or awards like the prestigious Opus Prize for faith-based humanitarian work, which cut her a $1 million check in 2008. She is a shrewd businesswoman, too: land owned by Maison Shalom has been leased to a Burundi Commercial Bank, and to a compound housing staff for the UN.
Maggy is a proud, defiant, outspoken woman. She recalled with relish the time she jabbed a finger in the face of a minister, accusing him of putting divisionist politics ahead of development. “You don’t prepare the new generation, but you prepare the rebellion,” she said to him, laughing heartily as she told the story.
Despite her Christian faith, she refuses to look at Maison Shalom as a charity. “I want the poor people to be able to take care of themselves – not to become beggars,” she said. She frequently debates the role of the international community in Burundi, which sacrifices long-term development for short-term goals. “The mistake the NGOs make is only to distribute,” she said, “not to teach people to be independent. It is very dangerous.” She thought the UN spent too much time giving conferences in Bujumbura: the speeches, the presentations, the endless buffets. And the NGOs, who put up their placards all around Burundi, touting their good deeds. “It’s a sham,” she said, with a swipe of the hand. “Behind these placards, you will see there is nothing!”
She wanted Burundians to seize the reins of the country’s development. “We’ve become very lazy,” she said, “because we know the North will come and build something if we don’t.” She knew self-reliance was the only answer to Burundi’s problems, and that development was the only way to build a lasting peace.
“If the father can’t find a job, if a mother can’t afford to find a doctor for her child,” she said. “You can’t have peace when young people can’t study. You can’t have peace when the people are hungry.”
For 17 years she has built her House of Peace, believing that Maison Shalom is “a ship, conducted by God.” She knows its work will continue without her.
“Maison Shalom is a dream,” she said. “Maison Shalom is a message for all humanity to stand up and fight for dignity without violence, with love. I am sure evil will not take the last word.
“Our job as Christians is not to have a good car, to go to the moon. It is to love.”