Maggy Barankitse of Burundi – Never give in, never give up!
Imagine that you grew up in a country that was the scene of periodic ethnic conflicts since its independence in the 1960s. Imagine that your parents taught you to welcome everyone in your life, no matter their background. Imagine that your country plunges in one of its most horrendous mass killings, with hundreds of people murdered and their children left without anyone to take care of them. Imagine you started taking in those kids in your house and placing them with friends and churches, waiting for the war to end and for kids to be returned to surviving relatives. Imagine the war did not end or seemed to end but would pick up times and times again, each time with more fierceness and violence and deadliness. Wouldn’t you be tempted to walk away from it all?
Today, I am inspired by Marguerite Barankitse of Burundi. ‘Maggy’, as she is affectionately called was born in 1957 in Ruyigi. in eastern Burundi. Her father died of cancer when she was still a baby, and her brother and her were raised by their mother.
Maggy credits her family, especially her mother, for teaching her to share, even when you have little to spare for yourself. This was especially important in a country that had been engulfed in periodic deadly conflicts since its independence in 1962.
Against that backdrop of a war that often left children without parents, her mother taught her an important life lesson: you must always love your neighbour, regardless of their ethnic background. It wasn’t just talk, she lived by those words: despite her meagre resources, she adopted eight children through her life and raised them as her own.
Maggy once asked her mother why people killed or discriminated one another, and her mother gave her an answer that would remain in her mind for the rest of her life “it was because they were not educated.”
From that moment, she realised that only education could free her country of the constant tribal discord. When it was time to choose her field of studies, it was no surprise to those who knew her that she decided to become an educator.
After completing her teaching studies at Rusengo High School, Maggy completed three years of seminary studies in Lourdes, in France. Upon her return in Burundi, she taught French at a local high school in Ruyigi.
Following her mother’s example, Maggy, who was only 23 at the time, adopted one of her students, Chloé, who had lost both her parents. In the years that followed, Maggy adopted another six children, never caring of their ethnic origins.
In the late 1980s, Maggy had an opportunity to go and study administration in Switzerland and when she returned to her native Ruyigi, she worked as a secretary at the Catholic Parish.
She was working there in October 1993, when Burundi’s President Melchior Ndadaye was brutally assassinated, plunging the country in one of the darkest times of its history. Burundi literally descended in hell and so did her life!
The revenge killings reached Ruyigi the next day after the assassination of President Ndadaye.
"They were our neighbours, but they came with machetes. We saw houses being burnt. I waited with my children full of fear.”
The following day, on October 23rd, Maggy with her seven adopted kids found refuge at the church with other neighbours.
She hid her kids out of sight, just in time before the killers entered the church.
She knew some of them, some were even distant relatives of hers. She tried to reason them but they called her a traitor. They striped her of her clothes to humiliate her and attached her to a chair, forcing her to watch as they killed the people who were hiding in the church. She was to be traumatised by the violence and hatred she witnessed that night. 70 people killed in front of her!
Though she was shaken to the core, her first reflex was to not to flee the region or even the country. No, the moment she felt it was safe to move, she went outside to look for survivors to bring them to the ‘security’ of her house. On that night of October 24th alone, she found 25 kids whose parents had been killed.
As the country civil unrest kept going on, so did the number of kids needing help. In a few weeks, she had found up to 200 orphaned kids! When things started to cool down, she went to her Archbishop to ask for help.
In May 1994, some seven months after she was left amongst the corpses of neighbours in the church of Ruyigi, the Archbishop allowed her to transform one of the parish’s schools into a children's shelter. 'Maison Shalom' (House of Peace) was born.
With help from benefactors who had heard of her story, Maggy tried her best to create a family environment for the kids. She didn’t think it would last forever, hoping that she could reunite the kids with relatives but that wasn’t always possible.
In 2015, violence erupted again in the country following the current president's decision to seek a third term. When Maggy joined her voice to those who denounced human rights abuses and the disappearances of critics of the regime, she became herself a target: Maggy began to receive death threats from militias loyal to the regime and she was forced to flee the country. In her absence, the government froze the accounts of Maison Shalom and closed her organization.
“That is what war does. I am only a mother who wanted to educate generations of young people to break this cycle of violence. I will carry on, no one can stop love.”
In 21 years of existence, thanks to their generous benefactors, Maison Shalom was able to take in more than 20,000 orphans, build schools and houses and send kids to university. In 2008, Maggy’s non-profit even opened a hospital!
Today, Maggy lives in exile in neighbouring Rwanda where she founded a new organisation, "Oasis of peace", which takes care of refugees, helping them to go to school.
“I want these young refugees to come back to Burundi as engineers and scientists, not as rebels bearing arms.”
Her resolve was not affected by the injustice she suffered in her birth country. On the contrary, she is even more outspoken on human rights and children rights issues than ever before.
And I can tell you that the world listens. In 2016, Maggy was the first laureate of the newly created prestigious Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. She received the prize from the hands of no other than George Clooney.
It was just the latest of the recognitions she’s received from different countries since the creation of Maison Shalom in 1994. Maggy Barankitse has also received Honorary Doctor's Degrees from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Duke University in North Carolina, the University of Lille and the Catholic University of Lille, in France.
Though she is at times sad and overwhelmed by what is happening in her country and in the great lakes region, she never gives in to discouragement. She knows many more kids need her help.
"I am on a mission."
A noble mission, dear Maggy! Never give up, we’re with you a hundred percent!
Right Your Legacy, Maggy! You are the Legacy! #BeTheLegacy #WeAreTheLegacy #Mandela100 #WhatisUMURAGE
Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi