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Strong Women of Africa: Burundi—Marguerite Barankitse, Part I

Maggy and Sr. MarieMarguerite—Maggy, as she’s called—creates oases, drawing from a deep well of faith that allows the waters of God’s love to flow into the desert of the Burundian province of Ruyigi to make it bloom.
I first met Maggy in 2004 when RENEW International began its partnership with the bishops of the country to provide a spiritual component for the National Plan for Peace. An internal war was going on, and we were there training lay leaders in the dioceses in the RENEW faith-sharing process and providing resources on themes that would promote healing, reconciliation, and peace building.
During that first trip, Maggy welcomed another RENEW colleague and me into her home and offered us refreshments as she talked to us about all the children she had begun gathering after the slaughter in her hometown of Ruyigi in October 1993—the beginning of a period of genocide. Originally she founded an orphanage called Maison Shalom (House of Peace). Nine years later, the children were being welcomed into family styled homes with surrogate parents. Trauma recovery programs were in place for children and teens, and I could sense that Maggy would not stop there.
Just four years later, in May 2008, I was able to visit Maggy again. As I bounced along the pothole-strewn road to Ruyigi, the capital of the province, I remembered my first visit in August 2004. Many things had changed since then, but Maggy’s passion for peace building and community building had not. She kept an open house. She kept telling me that I was the only one expected, but there were two men at the table when we arrived, and a woman and man came as we were finishing. Ina, a Rwandan who first came as a refugee and now works with Maggy, just kept bringing platters of food out of the kitchen for all these “unexpected” guests!
After dinner Maggy showed us the chapel. “I built this as an act of thanksgiving when I turned 50,” she said. “We are right next to the public hospital. The patients can come and rest or pray here. People were dying there, and they had no place to be buried from. Now they can be laid out here and have a burial Mass. We have Mass twice a week at 5:30 p.m.” In fact, there was Mass later that evening, and we all joined the community.
From the original Maison Shalom orphanage has grown the Maison Shalom project. After dinner Maggie took me over to Maison des Anges (House of the Angels, a hospitality center run by Maison Shalom) to show me my room. On the way, she noticed someone in the company of a person whom she knew was a bad influence. “I will call him later,” she said, “and tell him I know the person he is with. It will have to be later; it would not be right to embarrass him by talking to him while they are together.”
At the gates in the wall to Maison des Anges a simple, beautiful oasis was revealed. When I remarked, “How beautiful everything is, and how tastefully decorated!” she replied, “If we believe that we are God’s work of art, then all we do must reflect God’s creativity. The surroundings remind us of our own beauty. That’s why we always have fresh flowers.”
None of the houses or the chapel is built square or rectangular like a box; they are either octagonal or hexagonal or at angles with one another. The walls have curves. Curtains have bright flowery patterns, and the wicker furniture on the veranda has large pillows covered in white cotton duck fabric. The simplicity fosters an atmosphere of peace, order, and welcome. Maggy assured me that all was safe, including cameras and laptops. Another guest had left his laptop on the table in the common room. From my window, I could enjoy sunflowers, daisies, and cosmos in bloom. The only sounds were the birds. It was sunny, but at that elevation it was comfortable; a soft breeze wafted in through the window. Out of an experience of inhuman torture and death surrounding her, Maggy had created not only a new life for herself but for so many more — not just any life, but a life designed to surround all with love and respect.
Maggy’s story and the other endeavors of Maison Shalom will be continued in a future blog. Look for it here under the heading “Strong Women of Africa.”
Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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