Marguerite Barankitse and Maison Shalom: Promoting love and peace in Burundi

Marguerite Barankitse established Maison Shalom in 1993, amidst armed conflict and massacres in Burundi. She has since taken in and educated 20.000 children who lost their parents to war and AIDS, but continues to fight for lasting peace in the country, reconciliation and a better future.

Marguerite Barankitse’s dream is to one day close the orphan villages united under the name Maison Shalom, and to see to it that every single child in Burundi has a family. She has been taking care of orphaned children since the armed conflict erupted again in Burundi in 1993. Having grown up without parents herself, she felt responsible for hiding and caring for those children whose parents were killed during warfare. Maggy, as the orphans call her endearingly, was working at Bishop Joseph Nduhirubusa’s residence in Ruyigi in eastern Burundi, when violence escalated throughout the country. As massacres ravaged the city, Maggy Barankitse took in and hid twenty-five children in the bishop’s manor. The children’s parents and other family members were killed in the massacre, but with the help and support of the bishop, a former school was transformed into an orphanage and headed by Maggy Barankitse.

Today, Maggy Barankitse works in all of Burundi, but also in the border regions of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She seeks to create a new generation amidst violence and war, and to finally break the circle of violence. Maison Shalom’s primary mission is to protect and promote the rights of the child. Improving the living conditions is as much a part of this mission as the process of reconciliation and cohabitation with former enemies. Affording appropriate and accessible health care to the sick and those with HIV/AIDS, reducing the mother-child-mortality at birth, and providing schooling are important factors of the integrated and sustainable development of the country. The vision that Maison Shalom promotes covers the promotion of the rights of the child, education for peace and a lasting peace in Burundi.

Through Maison Shalom’s twenty years of existence, more than 20.000 children have received a home, schooling and surrogate-families. Maggy Barankitse did not want the war orphans to grow up in a dire orphanage, so she founded children villages of 500 houses each. The children live together in a closely knit community, with their house members making up their immediate family. Along with grown-ups, who make sure that all children go to school and receive health care, the eldest children in the community take over the roles as village mothers. Maggy Barankitse built Maison Shalom on the notion of love and peace. She knows how important it is for children to feel safe and loved, and continues to pass these principles on to Maison Shalom’s inhabitants.

The majority of Burundi’s population are Catholics, but Maison Shalom welcomes and cares for all children, regardless of their faith. Both Hutus and Tutsis grow up with each other, as well as Muslims and those without a confession. It is paramount that the children are educated and raised in the religion that their parents passed onto them before their deaths. But not only war orphans found a new home at the House of Peace, also street children, AIDS orphans and children of poverty stricken parents. Maggy Barankitse sees it as her duty to not only provide a home for those who have lost their parents, but to also care for the development of the entire community. Her community approach covers fighting poverty, malnutrition and poor health. The aim is to develop the community up to the point of self-sufficiency. All children are taught the managing of a household, how to grow vegetables and tend to livestock. Besides going to school, these skills help ensure the future integration of the children into different communities, and of course their autonomy.

Maison Shalom follows a holistic approach, that is to say that all the children are monitored even after their reintegration into outside communities. The integrated and sustainable development of the villages covers health, education, justice, but also culture and income. The focus is laid on agricultural and pastoral activities, seeing as roughly 90% of Burundi’s population live off of the agricultural sector. In addition, a bakery, a dressmaker’s workshop, a guesthouse and a farm have been set up over the years, where the children can work and earn money after they have completed their schooling.

Burundi is only slowly recovering from the political, social and ethnic turmoil of the past century. During the conflict that lead to the establishment of Maison Shalom, which erupted in 1993 and only ended with an armistice in 2003, roughly 250.000 persons died and up to 1.3 million were internally displaced. Burundi’s first proper elections in years took place in 2005. The typical agrarian state and weak economy make for slow development. Burundi ranks 178 out of 186 on the Human Development Index. According to recent surveys, 46% of the population are younger than 15. There is a high rate of childbirth mortality and up to 6% of the population suffer from AIDS.

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