Allegra Jordan: Solving the right problem
The problems of war, poverty, and disease pierced Maggy Barankitse like the nails of Calvary. She took those nails, picked up a hammer, and began to pound them into the foundations of a house of peace.
– Marguerite Barankitse
Marguerite Barankitse, “the Angel of Burundi,” is one of Africa’s most prodigiously gifted leaders. In the rural village of Ruyigi, Burundi, she built Maison Shalom (House of Peace), into one of the bright lights of Africa. The 16-year old village has helped raise tens of thousands of orphans of war. The village has a chapel, a top-flight hospital, houses owned by the children, a mechanic shop, schools, a morgue, a marketplace, and more surprisingly, a large swimming pool and movie theater. Her efforts have been honored by the Opus Foundation, and two months ago by “The Guardian,” which gave her its first Achievement in International Development Award.
Barankitse is in a rare class of leaders.
Her defining moment came after the massacre of her village. Her mission became to show Christ’s love as an alternative to war. If education, microfinance and swimming pool maintenance could help further that goal, so be it.
From a social entrepreneurial standpoint, Maggy is an example of solving the right problem. Every manager has heard the clichéd question, “Are you in the railroad business or the transportation business?” That question is around well past the transportation revolution because asking the right question trips up a lot of people.
Smart people mismatch solutions to problems all the time. Look at the evidence from highly trained, intelligent people: medical misdiagnoses, manufacturing recalls, new products with little commercial purpose. Go to the Google Gadget page. Google is one of the most successful companies in the world for good reason. Yet how many of these, by my last count, 140,789 gadgets, will anyone you can think of use? The very smart people at Google don’t know if you need them either. They had some ideas, but don’t know which ones will attain popularity, so they’re putting them out there and letting the market decide. They will review, revise, and innovate incrementally.
Understanding what problem you are trying to solve is tough. Sometimes the technology and science are too new to understand the implications. Sometimes people are blind to what is possible until someone shows us a new reality (Did anyone with a fly 1980s boom box really get that the iPod was just around the corner? Customers weren’t asking for it. Steve Jobs of Apple led the market). We may refuse to acknowledge information that does not comport with what we define as normal. A committee may compromise our vision and a once-promising solution turns into a mess. Without a clear vision of the problem, and the knowledge of where to stand firm and what can be compromised, we are less likely to have success with a new idea.
Maggy had the benefit of two Christian practices that helped her to innovate in Rugiyi:
1. A calling. Maggy had a choice. She could have left Burundi. But she decided to stay and rebuild. It wasn’t about careerism. It was a vocation that made more of her.
2. Lament tempered with hope. Christian lament, steeped in the deepest aching sorrow, is a first step to understanding what problem needs to be solved and what cannot be compromised. Lament is not inarticulate pain, but a discipline from which clarity can emerge. The process is outlined in the book of Jeremiah and in Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice’s short book “Reconciling All Things.”
When you are cut to the core and cry to God, only then might you use the short time you have left to become serious about the problem at hand. Combine that with a practice of hunting for stories of hope and storing them.
Maggy asked these questions:
“What experiments must I run to help create a world without disease?”
“What experiments must I run to provide a world without war?”
“What does a world look like without poverty?”
The problems of war, poverty and disease found Maggy, rather than the reverse, and pierced her as if they were the nails of Calvary. She found her calling, took those nails, picked up a hammer and began to pound them into the foundations of Maison Shalom. Fifteen years later she is still swinging at those nails with everything inside her. The world is just now hearing the rhythm of the pounding, which has become for her and a generation of children a new, fragile rhythm of life.
Allegra Jordan is special assistant to the dean at Duke Divinity School.