Instead of taking offense at being called “Maggy the Madwoman” for the past 20 years, Marguerite Barankitse, 60, embraces the nickname she earned by taking over 30,000 Burundian orphans into her home.
In 1981, when she first took in a 13-year-old girl called Chloe who had been orphaned by an ethnic massacre in eastern Burundi, Barankitse – who was just 24 at the time – never expected that years later she would be opening her doors to dozens, then thousands, of other children who were victims of war.
It’s a kindness that in April earned her the first Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which recognizes someone who has made an “extraordinary” humanitarian impact. But her work also puts her at risk of attack by militia gangs. “I am not afraid. I am full of hope,” she says. “No one can stop love, and no one can stop me. Even death can’t stop me. Because love is greater than death.”
Journalists were the ones who first branded Barankitse mad in 1993, soon after Burundi’s civil war began. She was working as a secretary for the bishop in Ruyigi, eastern Burundi, when one day a group of people from her own Tutsi community marched to the bishop’s house to hunt down ethnic Hutus who were hiding there. Barankitse went outside and pleaded with the group not to kill anyone.
Instead, they tied her up and slaughtered 72 adults. When they turned to the children, Barankitse begged that they be spared. The group left the 25 children standing among their parents’ bodies.
Barankitse decided to take the children in. She didn’t know what she was going to do with them but assumed the arrangement would be only temporary, that the fighting would be over soon.
But the following day, some people brought her a few of the Tutsi children from the village who were being targeted in revenge attacks. And since then, the deliveries haven’t stopped.
“[People] laughed at me and said, ‘The children will die in your hands, you will not have enough food or medical [supplies],’” says Barankitse. “I said, ‘OK, but if I abandon these children in the street they will die. I prefer that they die in my home with a mum.’”
Barankitse used family land to build houses for the children. As local media kept calling her crazy, some of the NGOs working in Burundi started giving her money to build homes, hospitals and schools. She founded her charity Maison Shalom (House of Peace) to first care for the children and then, when it was safe, to try to reunite them with their extended families or communities.
“It’s not about being mad, it’s about having unshakeable faith and being a great visionary,” says Richard Nijimbere, who found Barankitse in 1997 after his family was killed and he could no longer afford to stay in his boarding school. She paid for Nijimbere, who now works for Maison Shalom, to stay in school and come to her house for the holidays.
“If you can imagine that you have nowhere to go and you arrive in a place and it feels like home, I had so much joy,” says Nijimbere, who completed a university degree in Russia through Maison Shalom and is now married with a baby.
After the war ended in 2006, Barankitse built training centers to rehabilitate child soldiers and turned her focus on education. She hoped that by raising Hutu and Tutsi children together and making sure they all went to school, she could stop them from buying into politicians’ lies and fighting their wars.
“If they are in ignorance, they are very poor, you can manipulate them,” she says of how children were recruited as fighters on both sides of the conflict. “You can give them weapons and say, ‘You will kill and we will give you money.’ They have nothing to lose.”
Barankitse’s hopes for a generation that would not be ripped apart by politics were dashed in April last year. After protests broke out against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third-term bid, youth militias allied to the ruling party joined state forces in rampaging through Burundi, killing and terrorizing suspected dissenters and people in opposition neighborhoods. “They took even the children who go to school and they put them in jail,” says Barankitse. “Some were killed, also some other little girls were raped.”
It was after she publicly denounced the police murder of a 15-year-old boy that Barankitse says child soldiers were ordered to silence her. “This militia told me, ‘They sent us to kill you, but we can’t kill our mum, so try to hide,’” says Barankitse, who would “prefer to die than to keep silent and live in cowardice.”
But she eventually did go into hiding inside an ambassador’s residence, until a month later when an arrest warrant was put out for her and she was forced to abandon her country, her children and Maison Shalom. Some of the children were taken in by Maison Shalom staff and some took refuge in the houses Maggy had built; the others the charity tried to place in an orphanage in the east of the country.
Undeterred, Barankitse now runs Maison Shalom from her new home in Kigali, Rwanda. She restarted the charity last year to help Burundian child refugees who have been tortured, wounded or forced to drop out of school and who face disabilities, as well as women and girls who have been raped. The charity helps young refugees with vocational training and gives them a place to stay, some at Maison Shalom and most at a rented house in the capital.
“I am just a mad woman who wants to break this cycle of violence, this indifference,” she says over a video call as she gives a tour of her full-to-bursting home in Kigali. “You see where I sleep? Look!” she says, giggling at the mattresses on the floors.
Asked whether she has any biological children among the 30,000 who have passed through her doors, Barankitse lets out a massive laugh.
“Nobody wants a mad woman!” she says. “I have so many children that nobody will accept. All those children – mixed, Tutsi, Hutu, Muslim, Protestant … I think I am the happiest mum in the world.”