For two decades, Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse has dedicated her life to the children of Burundi. It started with 25 war orphans – today more than 20,000 young lives have been changed for the better because of her efforts in protecting and promoting their rights.
I met Maggy Barankitse at the Segal Family Foundation Annual Meeting in New York. She was being recognized for her work in Burundi as the recipient of the Foundation’s prestigious “Angel of Africa” award. Created by Barry Segal in 2004, the foundation supports grassroot organizations, like Maggy Barankitse’s Maison Shalom, and has provided grants to dozens working across Africa. It was a trip to Rwanda in 2004 that stirred Segal’s interest in sub-Saharan Africa, for Maggy Barankitse the spark came a decade earlier.
A qualified teacher, and later a seminary student, Maggy Barankitse was in a chapel when she got her “aha-moment”. It was October 1993, and the Tutsi’s had come to her hometown of Ruyigi to hunt and kill the Hutu’s who were hiding away. During the attack, Maggy was tied to a chair, stripped of her clothing, and forced to watch her friends being violently murdered. The city destroyed, she went to the chapel seeking solace, angered and frustrated about the violence erupting in her country and the thousands of children – up to 700,000 – who were orphaned after losing their parents during the civil war that lasted for more than a decade.
“I cried, I was angry. Why are brothers and sisters killing each other?”
The answer to that would never come, but it sparked the idea to build Maison Shalom, meaning House of Peace.
What started as a place of refuge for just over two dozen children has now grown into an entire village, complete with a recreation centre, farm, school, housing, hospital, and even an income-generating hotel/guesthouse. It has grown so big that it hasn’t only changed the lives of the orphans, but the entire community who now benefit of access to services. Its success, says Maggy, is in the approach. At Maison Shalom, it is an holistic one – centered around the community.
“The best way to help them [the children] efficiently and sustainably
is to develop the community in which they live.” – maisonshalom.org
While services are available to the entire community – even those seeking help from neighbouring towns – the focus is on the children, some of whom are behind bars. Maggy Barankitsetells me there are more than 400 of them – all under the age of 16 – who are being held in prison. Some of them were born there, while others stay locked up for months unaware of their legal rights. It prompted one of Maison Shalom’s more recent projects called ‘A helping hand for children’ that has already assisted dozens of children, including 14-year old Albert who was arrested for stealing his boss’ pants. During the trial the prosecution asked for a 10 year prison sentence! With the help of a Maison Shalom legal assistant Albert was released. It is that kind of simple intervention that is changing the lives of countless young children – and adults – in Ruyigi and surrounding communities.
Maggy is as humble as they come, not wanting to take all credit for the impact her house of peace has had. “It’s not me, it’s God. We’re on the ship and he is the captain,” she says, overwhelmed at times that He chose her to lead this mission. “I’m nothing special, I was born in a remote area – in a place where no one wants to go to.” While she is thankful for the Segal Family Foundation’s Angel of Africa award, her joy, she says, comes from seeing first-hand the impact the village has had on the children who pass through its doors. The majority of those who work at Maison Shalom where once children seeking refuge there.
“As peace returns to Burundi, Maison Shalom has gradually changed its approach. We no longer wait for children in need to come to us: we go to them.” – maisonshalom.org
Some have gone through the Centre of Occupational Training that focuses on skills that will allow young people to be valuable, active participants in their community. Since 2005, scores have been trained in carpentry, masonry, auto mechanics, soap-making and plumbing. Those who choose to train in agriculture and animal husbandry often stay on at the Maison Shalom farm. This is a particularly important industry in Burundi. Over 90% of the country’s active population relies on agriculture for its livelihood, and the sector accounts for more than half of Burundi’s GDP. The Maison Shalom farm employs 20 permanent and 300 seasonal workers who are responsible for a range or crops from bananas to rice. Extra pairs of hands often come in the form of former patients at Maison Shalom’s REMA hospital. More than 80% of those treated at the hospital can’t afford to pay for services, so they or their members work in the vegetable garden as a form a payment. It all comes back to that holistic approach Maggy and her team strive for. And they’re doing well. She tells me her work is far from done though. She wants to help thousands more. “I am on a mission,” she says. Already her work has inspired others in neighbouring countries, with similar “villages” being set up in other parts of the region. From 25 war orphans – to a countless number of children being helped.