A Discussion with Marguerite Barankitse, Maison Shalom, Burundi

With: Marguerite Barankitse Berkley Center Profile

October 17, 2011

Background: This conversation between Marguerite Barankitse, Aline Ndenzako, and Katherine Marshall during an October 2011 visit to Washington, D.C., focused on Barankitse's work for peace in Burundi: her vision of what is needed, how peace is linked to justice, and what women can and do bring to the cause of peace. She returned constantly to her central preoccupation with children, both the 20,000 who have come under her direct care through the Maison Shalom (which she founded and leads) and all Burundi’s children. She emphasizes that women play central and creative roles in building a true peace. Faith, she says, has a powerful role in her life and has always motivated her work. She expresses dismay at a system that finds itself able to fund weapons and thus perpetuate violence but is unable to fund hospitals for the sick. Her story is inspirational and unique. She started Maison Shalom (now a thriving center with a hospital, schools, and banks) from nothing, as well as the City of Angels, a network that supports children nationwide. With no funding at the start, over time she has acquired official support from UNICEF, and Maison Shalom is now officially registered as an NGO. Barankitse’s aim is to provide love and stability to children whose lives have been ripped apart by Burundi’s long-lasting, pervasive conflict.

Video | 2008 Opus Prize Winner: Marguerite Barankitse
Video | 2011 Chirac Prize Winner: Marguerite Barankitse

What is your dream, your aspiration? What it is that has motivated you in your work?

I have always loved the John Lennon song, “Imagine.” I wanted, from as long ago as I remember, to fix injustice and to make the world a better place. When I became a teacher, I said that I hoped to change something. My mother warned me then that I could do nothing, because the system was so unfair and I was just one person. But my mother had taught me my duty, and she had never let me believe that there was something I could not do because I was a woman. When she dampened my expectations, I answered that I would do my duty and do my best. It has always been like that. I am sure that we can make the world a better place, where children are loved and no one is hungry. Let us imagine and act.

In Burundi, people call me a crazy person: Crazy Maggie. But at the same time the president has called me the nation’s mother, because everyone knows that I stand up for children. I may be crazy, but I know that a nation must be founded on peace and on love. I know what is just and fair. We are one human family, and our human vocation is to distribute happiness. I do what I can, as one crazy women, with other crazy people who are my friends, and we help many children, thousands. But what we can do is just a drop in the vast lake of need. My dream is that the Maison Shalom can close, and that we have honest politicians who truly care and build the country we can have, and that our children deserve.

Everyone said, “She is crazy.” I found enough energy and love to share and to ignore or work to change the too many stupid things in the way to what was needed and what was right. But I want to stress that in all these years it was not just Maggie who built. I have friends, like Aline and Catherine, who also became crazy and who have worked with me.

Love is what makes us human. It does not require that we carry the world, but it gives us a way to stand up and fight in dignity. There is enough money in the world, plenty, for weapons, but there is not enough for hospitals. Where then is the love we speak about? Where is the sense in a system that allows this to happen?

You have told the story of what happened in October 1993 often, but please tell us briefly about the events that transformed your life and how you were able to move on.

There were rumblings of trouble for months and years of tension between Hutus and Tutsis that made little sense to me. But on a terrible day in October 1993, after the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda died in a plane crash and chaos erupted, I was with my seven children, and in an atmosphere of fear and killing and panic I sought safety. Many people were fleeing the killers and the army. I took refuge in the Archbishop of Ruyigi's quarters. However, the rebels got into the compound, and I hid the children in cupboards in the sanctuary of the church. The hordes of invaders killed over 70 people there. They demanded that I tell them where my children were, but when I refused they hesitated, not willing to kill me because they saw me as a Tutsi. They tied me to a chair and stripped me naked. My best friend was beheaded and they threw her head on my lap.

Many other awful things happened during those terrible days. We emerged with horrible memories of the killings of women and children before our very eyes, but we had children we had to care for, and many more came to us. I had 25 children I was caring for right after the events, 80 after a week, and 200 a month later. It was the needs of those children that drove and inspired me. I had these children in the beginning, and I had nothing to offer them. They needed love, they needed safety, and they needed food and clothing. I simply had to invent ways to help them.

How did you start?

I began with absolutely nothing. At first, I had to scrounge everywhere to find food to feed them and clothes that they could wear. With God’s help I was able to find enough so that we could survive. I went to the bishop’s house and asked for food and land. They gave us some land after a time. I went to the Belgian embassy. The people there asked if I had an appointment. "No," I said. So the person at the desk demanded to know: Who are you? What do you represent? I answered that I was just a mother. "What do you want?" they asked. I answered that I needed food for children who are hungry, and that they must have some. At first they answered that I needed an appointment and must come to the office, write a proposal, wait for an answer, then file a report. But over time we built a more reasonable relationship!

I found people who would give us a place to live. At first it was a German in Ruyigi who gave us a house, then others came forward to help.

But I had to find a place for all these children who had no one to love them, nowhere to go. Orphanages were not a solution. Their families were either gone or could not help at the time. So I was able to start Maison Shalom and gradually to build at our compound. We built houses, found land to farm, and built a small school. We took the name Shalom because my children heard on the radio that shalom meant peace ,and that is what we wanted. People helped as volunteers. But we always try to create a family structure, with houses for the children. And we always try to reintegrate children with their original families wherever it is possible. There are even some children who live with the families that killed their parents because they have been able to forgive.

Burundi’s conflict is not settled yet, but besides violence there is a new threat, HIV/AIDS, that also leaves children orphaned and in need. So we work to support AIDS orphans and others affected by that and other diseases. We created the City of Angels that welcomes children from all backgrounds. The name Angels is for the souls of the children who have died.

What was and is most important is education, so that the children have a chance for a better life. There were no schools to send the children to so we started our own and they educate all our children. We have been working for 12 years, and children have gone on to university, and some have studied abroad. They come back to us as lawyers and doctors. We want to ensure that when they are ready, the children are prepared to take control of their own lives and not depend on assistance from others.

We now have 130 Angel homes in different regions of Burundi. Some who run them are children who were part of our family and now have grown up and returned to help others.

Over the years we have helped and educated more than 20,000 children. But I do not really know how many. I never count.

How does your organization work?

After seven years of operating Maison Shalom, I went to UNICEF seeking help, and they agreed. But they asked to see my statutes, the papers of the organization. Because they work with the government, they needed to be sure that we had a legal foundation. “Statutes?” I said. We had no statutes of any kind. I told them that we worked from the heart. They were shocked that we had been able to operate for years with no papers, not paying taxes, nothing. So I went to the Ministry of Social Affairs. They, too, were shocked but helped us to register.

Now, since 2004, we are a registered, legal institution, a non-governmental organization with 300 full-time employees, and we pay taxes. We have an international presence as an NGO based in Luxembourg. So I need always to find the money to keep the operation running. After almost 20 years of work, we are a rather large organization. We have 300 permanent staff now, and hundreds of seasonal workers. There are always more than 3,000 children in our care.

We have lots of services, but what we offer most of all is friendship and love. We welcome women released from prison, street children, and people with HIV/AIDS. We have an international school. We have built a guesthouse and a restaurant. I have to pay their wages and their taxes.

We had terrible frustrations with going to and from Bujumbura to get money from the bank. Once when I was carrying a lot of money I was robbed on the road. So I said, "We would start our own bank!" They said I was crazy. Now we have three banks at Maison Shalom, and we offer microcredit to women.

Many people were sick, so we started a clinic. And one day 16 mothers died in childbirth. I persuaded the military to build a hospital, asking them what they thought would happen when they died if they did nothing good. The Opus Prize that I received in Seattle helped me to expand that into a new and well-equipped hospital. We teach nurses there.

And we are starting little children in preschools, because we know that early education is so important.

Everyone at Maison Shalom helps, in whatever way they can. They work on the land or help in the kitchen, whatever is possible. That is part of restoring their dignity. Everyone has to participate. That is important.

Does the government help?

My experience with politicians is that they do not care to help people, and they lie to achieve what they wish for themselves. We cannot rely on the government to build our society. It must be the women and the civil society.

What is your experience with UNICEF?

UNICEF has a wonderful mission and does much good work. It began in 1948 to help children. However, since they have set up and built a large headquarters in New York, they often forget their first purpose. It is the same as for the Church, which also can forget its first mission. But we have worked closely with UNICEF since 2000.

How do you explain the terrible ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis that has plagued Burundi for so many years?

The main problem is poverty, not ethnic differences. It is not easy, though, nor is it the full and correct story, to explain the violence and corruption and anger and tension we have lived in Burundi with poverty alone. But unless we are able to deal with poverty and have an honest government that cares about people and tells the truth, it is not clear how we can find hope for a better future.

It is important to remember that the tensions in our country have long roots, and go back before independence in 1961. My colleague Aline Ndenzako’s uncle was the prince, and he was killed in 1961, long ago. The problem is that the country was built on lies and on a 40-year period of military dictatorship. Corruption, stealing money, and keeping silence in the face of injustice became a way of life.

There was no vocabulary for justice after so many years of injustice. The problem of a Tutsi minority, a small one, having power while the large majority, the Hutus, could not have power or wealth was not discussed. In those circumstances, people’s hatred was built on fear and also on want. And the unfair distribution of land is one of the issues that aggravated anger and tensions.

In 1992 and 1993 there were negotiations and some hope. After the Arusha Accords, we looked to a possibility of dialogue, of a political agreement that would allow for a Hutu president and a Tutsi vice president. But then came the terrible violence. And now there is nothing but political conflict that goes on and on. It is all about power and money. The people and the system are not prepared to exercise power. Some of our children are now grown up, and some of them have gone into politics. So I know that the real solution is to have good politicians. I know that the context is important. Meanwhile, the politicians have no conscience and no accountability. It is a shame—c’est une honte.

And I get constant calls from the government asking me to help them! And when the government gets mosquito nets from the Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria] for malaria, they sell them to my hospital! It is a strange situation. But I still can dream of and hope for a Burundi where people are reconciled and where we can truly live together.

Are women in Burundi working for peace in special ways?

The women of Burundi are candles in the darkness. They run homes for children, and they care for their families, no matter what happens and what extraordinary effort it takes. They understand what reconciliation is about, without explaining. They understand what a community is and what it needs to survive and thrive.

You are a Catholic, yet you describe challenges, even confrontations with Catholic Church authorities in Burundi. How do you see the role of your faith in your own life and work? And in the building of your nation, Burundi?

If I were not a Christian, I would have committed suicide many times over the years. It is my faith that gives me strength. Whenever I face difficulties, I go to church and pray to God to remove the obstacles that are in my path. And God answers my prayers. It is my faith that gives me 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.

I do 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, so I challenge it to act. So I do not always agree with the diocese about priorities and about what we can and must do.

Caritas has given Maison Shalom support for 15 years, starting in 1999. We have a good relationship, and charity has no national boundaries. Many parishes support us with money, donations of goods, and volunteers. We sometimes have tensions. Caritas wants to see us strengthen our management, and they put conditions on our numbers. Once they set a ceiling of 10,000. But when they returned they found 5,000 more children. We needed to help them and, exasperated, they accepted that necessity.

I have met with Catholic bishops' conferences, for example in Brussels, and I spoke at the Vatican when the African bishops met there. So we have a dialogue and an exchange.

Once not long ago I was trying to help some people who had just returned from Tanzania where they had lived for years in refugee camps. They came home with absolutely nothing. I went to the bishop and asked him to let them work the land that was part of his property. His answer was hesitant: it is too complicated. So I just went to the people and told them to farm the land. When the bishop questioned me about it, I told him that that was his vocation: to give his life for Jesus. I reminded him of the times when Jesus had problems with the Pharisees, who followed the rules, and how the answer of Jesus was always to follow love, and to help and favor those who were in need.

Every day, you should ask, "What have you done to help those in need?" I do that every day.

For me, in my Church, the first religion is to love. I am inspired by St. Augustine, I think it was, who said, “Love and do what you wish.”

How do you answer the many questions about the role of the Catholic Church on family planning? And how do you deal with it in practice, in your programs and in your hospital?

Our goal is to promote life, and that is central. That means we face many choices, and in our response we look to the human realities, not to dogmatism. A hospital is there to give life. But our schools are there to teach about conscience. When a life is in danger, a mother’s life, we make the choice we must. We do not think that it is good to distribute condoms in the streets. But we recognize that people see moral choices in different ways. We respect that, and we have an interfaith chapel at the hospital. In the same way that we give vaccinations to prevent disease, we give the tools of family planning: we give family planning devices to those who seek them so they can bring children into the world who will have enough love and enough food, so that the family will not face malnutrition.

The Church should not forbid; it should not condemn. The health centers belong to the congregation, not to the bishops. These are life and death issues, and they are not just for bishops; they are not there to condemn. We are dealing with the core of the human character, with love and community and compassion.

What is your next challenge?

There is so much we need to do for women, to help them, and to help their children.

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