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

Rema AmbulanceIn Part I of this blog about a strong woman of Africa, I mentioned that in 2004 I sensed that Maggy would not stop with the orphanage in Burundi, and I began telling you the story of the expansion of Maison Shalom (House of Peace) which I visited in 2008.
During my 2008 visit, Maggy also took me to visit the Mothers’ and Children’s Center, where Josline, the director and a clinical psychologist, described the programs for me as she showed me around the modest building. Mothers participated in classes on child care, nutrition, and hygiene and brought their babies on a regular basis to be monitored. They could also participate in maintaining a community garden where fresh vegetables were grown.
We then moved on to the new hospital—opened three months before—on the same grounds. “Here are my roots,” Maggy said. “I was born over there,” she added, pointing towards the hills beyond. “Since it is just my brother and I, we decided to use this land for the hospital. Then I bought 80 hectares (approximately 200 acres) on which we have three community farms to provide food for many people, including the patients. I used prize money I received to do all this.”
Outside the hospital stood an ambulance on which was printed, “We will come and get you.” An ambulance driver was on duty 24/7 and the service was free. “We want everyone to know that this is their hospital, that you don’t need money to come here. See, there are no walls here. It is open, open to all.” She continued the tour through the emergency, reception, and obstetrics areas, where we met a mother—who had given birth by Caesarian section— with her newborn. From there we went to the lab, the exam rooms, x-ray, and sonogram. “That building under construction will be the kitchen so that everyone can eat,” Maggy told me, “and the next project is the surgical unit. Over there is the morgue and that other building is the chapel. Families can wake their dead here, have Masses of Christian Burial. We want to serve everyone. We have our own potable water supply that comes from wells back in the hills, and we have our own electrical transformer. If the transformer goes off, we have back-up generators. Eventually we will also have solar power. The food will come from one of our farms.” This was an amazing project: potable water is virtually non-existent in the country, electrical power goes off without warning, and only sizeable businesses have backup generators!
Cinema Shalom, where young people learn cinematography and create original films, was next. It began as a project for healing of memories, but now other types of films are created. Every night there is a showing. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go back later, but Richard, one of the other visitors, assured me that the films were wonderful. On the door, there was a sign that said, “No guns. No war.”
Next door, there were several other centers where tailoring, information technology, and other trades were taught. Maggy proudly counted 36 university graduates, some of whom had returned to work with her or teach in the local schools. Many of her “children” of Maison Shalom were employed at the hospital and in other programs. “I’m sure I’m the only mother with 36 college grads!” she said with a smile.
When it was time for Mass, we scurried back to meet a young priest and a group who came to celebrate, sing, and praise God. It was a wonderful, joyful celebration. Afterward at supper, I met Chantal, Paul, Richard, Ina, Maggy, and Sandra, who lost all her children in the genocide. Sandra had lived with Maggy for 14 years. “We are best friends. Even when we fight, we are friends,” Maggy said. Sandra never recovered mentally. She kept going over and over the slaughter, mostly sitting on the floor and mumbling to herself. Maggy lets her. What a witness to unconditional love. It was late when the meal was over, so we went back to Maison des Anges for the night. My bed and mosquito net had been prepared.
The next morning we all had breakfast together and then it was off to the mechanics’ shop. There were about 20 students, young men and women, in class. The women smiled broadly when I told them I was glad to see women there and shared about my friend, Marge, the master electrician. Outside, the garage was in full swing. One group was repairing a vehicle with four-wheel drive, and another was cleaning parts for re-use. It was easy to see that they were proud of themselves. Once, they were all child soldiers. Now they had a future.
In addition to the child soldiers, Maggy helped 300 women who were former rebels to settle on three large farms, build houses, and support themselves. We passed by some of the houses on the way to one of the community farms. Crops were rotated; a portion of the land was always lying fallow. There w
ere cows and chickens. A group sorted seeds in the yard in front of a barn that sported solar panels on the roof. “We have our own potable water supply, and solar energy runs everything we need here,” Maggy explained. She introduced me to the woman who was the director—yet another life she had “saved” from despair.
We drove her back to the hospital where she gave us a tour of the little round chapel under construction. The workers laying ceramic tile were former children of Maison Shalom.
Before we left, Richard arrived. He had been writing Maggy’s story. Some years ago, Maggy published her story in Hatred Won’t Have the Last Word. “The book is old news,” she said. “Richard is telling today’s story.” She was right. She may be admired for what she endured, but she would be admired even more for how the faith that got her through the crisis blossomed in so many beautiful projects that are helping to lift up both the attacked and the attackers into a new life of respect and peace.
It is certainly not “all about Maggy.” “Everything I have done, I have done out of my faith,” she said. It is all about the community and building community, creating an atmosphere of respect and dignity, and recognizing that every person is a child of God created in God’s own image and likeness and called to a great hope in Christ. It takes a strong woman, a woman imbued with deep faith and openness to the Spirit of God, and Maggy definitely is that kind of strong woman of Africa!

Note: During the week of October 20, 2013 Maison Shalom is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary!

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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