Marguerite “Maggie” Barankitse was born in 1957 in Ruyigi, East-Burundi, one of the poorest regions of the country. Of Tutsi heritage, she was a teacher at a local secondary school but was fired because of her protests against discrimination between the Hutu and Tutsi in the field. She then went to work as a secretary for the Catholic bishop in Ruyigi. Despite mounting tensions, Barabkitse put her dream of ethnic harmony into practice by adopting seven children: four Hutus and three Tutsis. As violence escalated between the two tribes following the assassination of the first democratically elected president of Burundi, a group of armed Tutsis descended on Ruyigi on October 23, 1993, to kill the Hutu families who were hiding in the Bishop’s manor. Barabkitse had managed to hide many of the children but was caught by the fighters.
They beat and humiliated her and forced her to watch the killing of 72 Hutus, but she refused to tell them where the children were hidden. Ultimately, she was spared only because of her Tutsi heritage. After the ordeal, Barankitse gathered her adopted children and the surviving orphans and hid them in a nearby school. As more and more children sought shelter with her, she decided to create a small nongovernmental organisation: Maison Shalom, the House of Peace. Her house was open to children of all ethnic origins: Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. She calls them “My Hutsitwa children” and they call her Oma (or “grandmother” in German). In the following years, Maison Shalom in Ruyigi was one of the few places in Burundi where Hutus and Tutsis cohabited in harmony.
Since the events of 1993, over 20,000 children and youth have benefited from Maison Shalom. Before the current crisis in Burundi, the organisation employed more than 270 people, including nurses, psychologists, and educators who implemented special projects for the children.
In April 2015, Barabkitse spoke out against the third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza and joined the youth demonstrations denouncing him. As a result, she was obliged to hide for a month in an embassy in Bujumbura. Eventually, she had to flee; the government had her name on a death list. Barabkitse found herself a refugee.
Yet, her refugee status did not stop her devotion to alleviating suffering: She has opened a branch of Maison Shalom in Rwanda.
In 2004 an estimated 20,000 children had benefited from Barankitse’s help, either directly or indirectly.
By 2015, over 300 houses for children and youth aged between 4 and 20 had been built with the help of her NGO Maison Shalom.