Burundian humanitarian honored for her work healing broken Hutu and Tutsi families
Marguerite Barankitse will tell you that she is an ordinary woman.
She goes by an informal “Maggy.” She relies on her Catholic faith, drawing inspiration from another woman, the Virgin Mary, whom she says was merely obedient to God. And when asked to reflect on her accomplishments, she says in French, “Je m'émerveille,” or “I marvel.”
And yet, it does not take one long to see that this humble Maggy Barankitse is far beyond so simple a word as “ordinary.”
Barankitse, a Burundian humanitarian, visited Duke University last week to receive an honorary doctor of humane letters at the university’s May 12 commencement and to share her story of raising a new generation of Burundians in her country. Burundi endured genocide in 1972 and a 12-year civil war from 1993 to 2005. Both were fueled by ethnic tensions.
But rather than remaining divided along the ethnic lines of the East African region’s Hutu and Tutsi people groups, Burundians under Maggy’s care are learning to live as one family.
“When I saw my brothers and sisters killing each other, my dream was how I can improve, how I can create a new generation who will break this cycle of violence,” Barankitse said in a recent interview. “We are one human family.”
Following a brutal episode of violence in 1993, in which she witnessed the murders of more than 70 people, Barankitse, a Tutsi, founded Maison Shalom in the eastern Burundi city of Ruyigi. Barankitse envisioned the home, which means House of Peace, as a place where both Hutu and Tutsi children who lost their parents during the country’s civil war could grow up learning to love one another.
The idea for Maison Shalom emerged from searching for a way forward in the midst of unspeakable pain and violence. Several people who took part in the mass murder that Barankitse witnessed were part of her extended family.
“I was thinking, How can I belong to this family? I am a Christian,” she said, “and I know that our vocation — human vocation — is to love. Why did my cousins become killers?”
Those difficult questions urged Barankitse to think about how she could create a new family — whose members did not abandon those who had committed crimes but instead brought together perpetrators, victims and their families in order to dismantle hatred and to build love.
“At Maison Shalom, we have created a new ethnic group,” Barankitse said.
Today Maison Shalom has expanded from a single home to more than 3,000 individual homes, a vocational training facility, farms, schools, a hospital, and micro-finance businesses throughout the country that, in total, have brought more than 30,000 Burundians into new family systems that are working through histories of hatred.
Chris Rice, the director of The Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, which works to form and to connect leaders for reconciliation throughout the world, met Barankitse in Burundi in 2009 at a gathering of East African reconciliation leaders sponsored by the center. Barankitse shared her story, and then Rice and several other center staff visited Maison Shalom.
For Barankitse to visit Duke to share her story and to receive an honorary doctorate for her peace work is the culmination of years of anticipation and hope for a wider audience for Barankitse’s witness, Rice said.
Barankitse’s story reveals the “power of seeing what reconciliation looks like,” he said.
In addition to her honor from Duke, Barankitse also received an honorary doctor of humane letters from Emory University in Atlanta. She is the past recipient of nearly 10 awards for her humanitarian work, including the French government’s Award of Human Rights and the Opus Prize, an award for faith-based, humanitarian work.
At a public lecture on May 10, Barankitse shared her words of hope for living through and beyond conflict — lamenting, like a prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, the past violence of her native Burundi and calling her listeners to a life of radical reconciliation.
Duke Divinity School Dean Richard Hays commended Barankitse for her example as an ambassador of reconciliation and quoted Romans 8:38-39: “ ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’,” he said. “Your work at Maison Shalom is testimony to that truth — that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
Innocent Ndagijimana Justice, a Rwandan who fled his country’s 1994 genocide and who recently received his Master of Divinity from Duke, said that Barankitse’s testimony inspired him as he prepares to take the next step in his calling as a minister.
Barankitse’s message speaks not just to East Africans who have witnessed ethnic conflict but to Americans who are facing racial, ethnic and social divisions. Barankitse’s message can help American audiences in “confronting injustice, in whatever form it presents itself,” Ndagijimana Justice said.
When people ask Barankitse what Maison Shalom is, she replies as one would expect her to — without pomp and pretense, with the minimal words that lead only to marveling.
“I say, ‘Maison Shalom is a message,’ ” she said. “It is a message: We can live together.”