Maggy Barankitse: Builder of hope

Maggy Barankitse

Maison Shalom has helped more than 20,000 children in the aftermath of the Burundian genocide. Its founder and president talks about how Maison Shalom works to restore dignity and hope to the citizens of this war-torn nation.

Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse is a humanitarian who created Maison Shalom -- House of Peace -- out of the carnage of the Burundian genocide. In nearly 20 years of existence, Maison Shalom has grown to include schools, a hospital, agricultural cooperatives, a microfinance system and other projects.

Maison Shalom began after Barankitse saved 25 children orphaned in a horrific night of mass killing during the civil war between Tutsi and Hutu tribes.

But she has always been clear that her mission is not to build an orphanage or even to help children but rather to help raise them in God’s love and to create a new generation that will break the cycle of violence in her country. The mission of Maison Shalom has expanded to the communities in which the children live, and its holistic initiatives seek to improve the lives of all people.

Barankitse has received many honors, including the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, the Opus Prize and the Fondation Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention. Barankitse received an honorary degree from Duke University at its commencement ceremony in May 2013, when she also spoke at Duke Divinity School.

While on campus, Barankitse was interviewed by journalist David Crabtree about her work with Maison Shalom. Their conversation is presented in the 20-minute video above.

Excerpts from that same interview can also be viewed by topic in a series of short video clips. In them, she talks about her phrase “Love made me an inventor,” why she built what she did at Maison Shalom, how she found the courage to create an innovative institution, why she built a morgue, her own struggles with God, the importance of forgiveness, and her view that life is a feast.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Q: It’s a pleasure to have you here and to meet you. How did you have the imagination to create this “house of peace,” as you say this is?

I didn’t create Maison Shalom. But I think, when I watched those persons dying in front of me, I decided to break this indifference, this silence. I want compassion. I want to create a new generation who will break this cycle of violence.

Q: You have said, and I’m quoting, “Love made me an inventor.” What did you mean by that, and what do you mean by that?

I mean love makes us inventors, because if you love, you will find the solution, in the eyes of those children.

When I had nothing to feed all those children, I took time and prayed and said, “God, I know you want life, you want love; give me enough strength” -- and the solution came.

I called my friends; I had a journalist who came and said, “I know somebody who can help you.” And then we cultivated.

I can give you an example. One night I saw that the following day I had no bread for the children, no sugar. And then in the night I called the biggest children and said, “What can we do, because we must have something to eat?”

And then one child said to me, “But if we have some flour, we can make some cakes, and then we will sell it and we can have beans, salt and so on.” And we talked. And like that, we can sell cakes, and we can have salt and sugar.

It’s like that. If you love, you find the solution.

Q: So I hear you say that through the love, not only are you able to teach the children about love and compassion and helping, but the children are also teaching you.

I think this house, it’s not really -- yes, I am a little instrument. But I think the children taught me so many things.

It’s children, for example, who can show me how I must love them. Because sometimes we parents, we think we are able to teach children, but it’s children also who have so many ways to show us. We must obey also the wish of the children.

And I think this house -- it’s really children who built this house; it’s not me.

Q: And whoever built the house, part of what’s included there is a movie theater, a swimming pool, a hospital, schools, churches, homes -- all innovations meant to give back to the children their sense of self-worth, and human dignity.

Yes, it’s very important.

Q: So talk with us a little bit about the deeper significance of why it’s important to include all that’s included there.

When I began to teach children, I saw surrounding me that even those children who have parents need to go to school. If I begin to help only orphans go to school, then tomorrow it’s another social conflict. Then I changed; I said, “No, it’s not the correct way.”

And in the town, I saw that people -- Hutus and Tutsis -- can’t go together in the same place and dialogue.

I said, “Tomorrow, another war will begin, because the people are not together. I’ll build a cinema, and then they can talk together; they can watch movies together.”

I said, “That’s how to give opportunities to dream to those people who suffered so much from the war.” And I put in a swimming pool.

But in one day, in 2001, I got 16 babies, newborn, and 16 mothers dying in giving birth. And I said, “No person can repress a mother.”

It’s like that. Love makes us inventors.

And thinking for the whole community -- because children belong to the community -- not to put them in an institution. The institution can’t educate a child. It’s a family; it’s community.

It’s why I build in a holistic way, to put together and to give -- to [shine] this glory of God, because we are created to [shine], in our face, the glory of God.

And we are the builders of hope. We are not just there to feed or to distribute clothes -- no, to distribute dignity and hope.

Q: All that you’ve been able to accomplish would be remarkable for anyone, but for a woman in Burundi, where the limits are much tougher than any of us can imagine here, it took a phenomenal amount of courage. Where does that courage come from?

When you suffer so much, when you watch your brothers killing your other brothers -- Because I am Christian. When you see a mom dying and you are not able to save her, then you think, “And I am Christian!” I said, “God created us, gave us, with our baptism, with our communion, strength with that.”

And courage. Because I love also my country. A country is a mom; you can’t just abandon your mom when she’s suffering.

And I have so many friends. We are one human family, and God sends me many friends to say, “Come, our sister, we are there; we can just be there and show you that you are not alone.”

This -- Maison Shalom -- is not from my hands. I compare Maison Shalom to a ship; the captain is God. I am there, with others, with you. And I am sure that this ship will reach the destination, to say, “We are one family; stand up in dignity and fight without violence, but with love.”

And I am sure love will always take the last word.

Q: Because you have witnessed so much dying, is that why you built such a prominent morgue?

I have seen my brothers and sisters banalize their life, kill persons and go.

I have seen in 1993 dogs with the hands of my friends in their mouth. I have seen some people taking -- like that [gesturing] -- the machete.

Then I said, “I am Christian; I know that human life is sacred. How can I show to my brothers, Burundian brothers and others, that this life -- and even the body -- is always sacred; you can’t banalize it?” And it’s why I want to show that, and show mourning.

Because if you lost a very close friend or a father or a mom or a child, you need to take time and to pray, or to be concerned. Because it’s not just like animals; it’s sacred.

And that’s why this is very important for the hospital, for me, before a funeral, to go and to say goodbye, to take time to wash, to put on perfume.

This is very important. Because we are not animals or other; no, we are sacred, created [in the image] of God.

Q: Because of all you have seen, do you ever -- or have you ever doubted your vision? Have you struggled with God following these tragedies?

Of course. The first day, after seeing my friend die, and all those killers that I know -- because among those killers were also my family [members], some of my cousins -- I went in the chapel and I said, “Oh God, my mom lied to me, because she taught me that you are love. How can you create -- how can I belong to those killers? I don’t believe that you are love.”

And when I was crying, I heard the voice of my first adoptive child, Chloe, who said, “No, she didn’t lie to you. We’re still in life; we are there.” This was the first miracle, and then I saw that God was love.

But in 1996 I crashed, because, again, they killed so many people. And I went to see them. So many mothers -- I found those bodies. I took many children, mutilated children, and one without a mouth.

And I wanted, with my own forces, to do something. And I lost my voice. Then I decided to break this, and I went to pray for one month.

After that I decided to be humble, and to say, “It’s not me; it’s the hand of God.” And I prayed, “Oh God, you are God and I am a little instrument. Give me enough strength to go and to [shine] your glory. Not me but you.”

Q: You speak of forgiveness. That’s central to your mission; that’s central to Maison Shalom.

Forgiveness is the key of life. If you refuse to forgive, you refuse life. If you don’t take time and say, “I want to live; I want --” Of course, forgiveness is a process; it’s not like a baguette magique [magic wand], to say, “Oh, I forgive.”

It will come, but you must take time. Take time to read this page. And you must decide to turn the page. Read together with killers, with other persons who suffer, and step by step try to turn the page and to write another page, a beautiful page. And then it allows you to continue to live.

If you don’t want to forgive, then you -- you have hatred in your heart, and it will kill you, because hatred kills. Hatred kills, because it’s a cycle of violence.

You think you are weak if you forgive. But somebody who forgives becomes powerful. Imagine if I don’t forgive: I have those victims’ children, and I will never prepare their future.

I will organize; it will be a rebellion. Maison Shalom will be a house for rebels who will take weapons when they become adults and go to kill the killers of their parents.

If I love those children, I must change their life and make them like candles amidst darkness.

The children taught me how to forgive. It’s a process; it was not so easy for me, even today.

Sometimes I think that I’ve forgiven, but -- I remember one day I met a killer; he was in front of me, going in the church for communion, and he had the clothes of one of the parents of one of the children of Maison Shalom.

I was so angry that I went and took him and said, “No! Imagine, no shame! How can you?”

Then I thought, “Oh, I taught the children to forgive” -- and then after church, I asked him to forgive me, and I called him, and we shared food. I said, “OK, you ask for forgiveness from the children, and then we will forgive.”

It’s like that. It’s not so easy to turn the page. Because, of course, when I return to my village, sometimes I cry, because I remember my cousins, I remember my uncles, because they killed 60 persons from my family. And my family wanted revenge; they became killers also.

Then it’s a process, and it’s a gift from God.

Q: But do you realize how bright your light is with that smile?

I realize how dark I can be, because you think -- when you really love God, you realize what you didn’t do in the day, and you say, “Oh, I must correct this.”

And for me, I have suffered so much, I love life. For me, when I wake up, I say, “Wow, another day. Thanks to God for giving me another day to [shine] this glory of God. Thank you for giving me life.”

Life is a feast. Why wouldn’t we want to celebrate this feast together? Because if you want to celebrate a feast, you can’t be alone. You must invite your friends, the other; then it will become a feast.

If you celebrate the feast alone, it’s not a feast.