Ms. Marguerite Barankitse
Founder of the Maison Shalom NGO

An outstanding Burundian! Ms. Marguerite Barankitse, holder of an honorary doctorate from Université de Louvain, carries on a courageous battle for peace and reconciliation in her native Burundi. A tireless worker, she has dedicated her life to child victims of war. Marguerite—or Maggie as she prefers to be called—was born in 1956 in the village of Nyamutobo. Orphaned at a tender age, she attended a convent boarding school in Bujumbura, where she received a top-notch education. Having resolved to devote herself to teaching, she traveled 12 km on foot every day to attend normal school in Ruyigi and after graduation taught from 1979 to 1981. From 1981 to 1983, she undertook lay religious training at the Auxilium in Lourdes. Once back in Burundi, she took up teaching again in Ruyigi, but her teaching license was revoked when she refused to apply the policy of separation by ethnicity. She left to study in Switzerland on a scholarship before returning to Ruyigi to become secretary to the bishop.

Called to lay celibacy, Marguerite Barankitse adopted seven Hutu and Tutsi children, including a Hutu girl named Chloé Ndayikunda, whose parents had been killed during the genocide of 1972. In October 1993, with the political situation deteriorating, Maggie hid dozens of Hutu adults and children at the bishop’s palace in Ruyigi. On Sunday morning, October 24, Tutsi assailants armed with clubs, machetes, and rocks attacked the palace. Maggie tried to intervene, but they knocked her aside and tied her to a chair in the courtyard, then slaughtered 72 people before her eyes and set the building on fire. After the massacre, a Rusengo student freed her in exchange for the keys to the storeroom. Bribing the rebels with money, Maggie managed to save 25 Hutu children from the burning building and hide them in the cemetery. Then as night fell, she went to get help from a German aid worker, Martin Novack, who provided them with a safe haven. Finding unexpected strength in her anger and outrage, but above all in her unwavering faith in divine providence and her love of life, she slowly but surely, in constant peril of her life, established Maison Shalom. She first set up in a run-down school on loan from the Bishop of Ruyigi. As the genocide persisted, dozens and then hundreds of children sought refuge with Maggie. To feed them all, Maggie harvested crops from family land. As the war dragged on, Maggie decided to work the land with the children to produce food. She organized a mutual assistance system irrespective of tribe, religion, and social origin, in which her older charges looked after the younger ones.

At first, her work was funded by grants from Germany. Later, thanks to friends she had made during her time in Europe, international aid has helped support many additional projects. She opened two more centers for traumatized and injured children: Oasis of Peace and House of Peace. To help provide a future for these growing children, Maison Shalom developed into a network of “villages,” where the children could grow and develop within “families,” and take their lives in hand. For Maggie, the top priority remains to teach these children peace and forgiveness. To date, Maison Shalom has helped over 50,000 children and adults. In July, 2007, the mother-child center—built by the Belgian and Burundian armies on land belonging to Maggie’s family and donated to the Maison Shalom NGO—was inaugurated. In addition, a 120 bed hospital called “Rema,” (an expression of comfort and support in Kirundi) is slated to open in 2008.

Maggie is both the Mother Theresa and the Abbé Pierre of Burundi. Her message, “Love always triumphs,” echoes time and again as she travels the world. “Evil will never have the final word. Faith and love can move mountains of hate.” Maggie is proud to display her faith. “It is prayer that keeps me going. The Eucharist is my source of true courage,” she says. In recognition of her humanitarian and peace-building efforts, Maggie has received numerous international awards.

© 2008 International Eucharistic Congress