Maggy opened the door of the bishop’s palace and stepped out. Just outside the front door were her family. and friends. Members of her village and tribe.
Inside that palace, in the village of Ruyigi, her seven adopted children huddled in fear. They were joined by six dozen adults who had fled there out of panic. They were Hutu people. Surrounded by Tutsis, who were out for blood.
There was a bloodbath in Burundi. Unlike any other massacre in Africa. It was personal this time. Tribe against tribe. Sect versus sect.
When Maggy Barankitse opened the palace door that morning and locked it behind her as she stepped out, she could feel the fear in the air. The silent panic. The underlying cry for blood. She recognized the faces looking back at her.
They were her family members.
Family who disagreed with Maggy’s belief that everybody should be able to live together peacefully.
She had been dreading this moment. Refusing to come out of the palace where she had been protecting her adopted children and the Hutu refugees. But her family and the other Tutsis outside began to douse the palace with gasoline. They would burn it to the ground. With Maggy and her children inside. As well as her friends and their children.
They beat Maggy. And stripped her naked in front of the gathering mob. Then they tied her to a chair. And made her watch the sadistic madness that was to follow.
One at a time, her family brutally murdered the Hutu refugees she had been hiding inside the palace.
Maggy watched all 72 of her friends and coworkers die that day.
One by one. Maggie watched. Unable to move. Maggie watched. Unable to help. Maggie watched.
It took almost six full hours to kill those 72 friends of hers. From 9am to 3pm to be exact. Almost a full day’s work.
The children were next.
As Maggie Barankitse sat naked in that chair on October 24, 1993, she prayed for the safety of the children.
And her prayers were answered. The Tutsi accepted a ransom for her 7 adopted children and 18 others who were orphaned by the brutal massacre of their parents.
Done with their thirst for blood. They left Maggie there with her dead. Naked. And in shock.
Freeing herself from her ties, she went to the chapel to pray.
She didn’t know how to go on without them.
“DEAR GOD, SHOW ME HOW I CAN CONTINUE TO LIVE AFTER THIS.”
Maggy’s children made their way to her as she prayed. She watched the children of those 72 butchered friends come out of hiding. They were now orphans.
Maggie had a choice to make. Would she be the victim? Would she let hate win? Could she make a difference?
Maggy had been raised to love. She had been raised to persevere. Maggie had been raised to teach.
And so she made up her mind. She would go on.
She would attempt to change her corner of the world.
In truth, Maggy didn’t have time to mourn those she lost. She didn’t have time to cry over what had happened to her. She had 7 children of her own and 25 children with dead parents looking to her for answers.
So she did the only thing she knew how to do.
She enveloped each of them in her loving arms. She told them she was their mother now. She promised to make tomorrow brighter for each and every one of them.
Knowing that she needed a safer place to raise your burgeoning family, she fled to the house of a German humanitarian worker in the area, named Mr. Martin. She begged him to let her stay there with all of the kids.
Without hesitation, he agreed.
And it was just one day after the most horrific day of her young life that Maggy Barankitse started Maison Shalom, House of Peace, on the property of her new German hero.
News began to spread rapidly about “the crazy lady of Ruyigi” who was taking in orphans. And the orphans came. One by one. Ten by ten. Every day more children knocked on the door of Mr. Martin’s house, the temporary home of Maison Shalom.
And they kept knocking. As the violence grew worse, more children made their way to their new mother.
They finally outgrew their quarters and needed more space. The Diocese of Ruyigi gave Maggy some property to use. The civil war continued. The genocide continued. And the children continued to knock on Maggy’s door. And she never turned any of them down. It didn’t matter if they were Hutu, or Tutsi, or Twa. It didn’t matter.
Maggy took them all in without question and without fear for her life.
A life that could be taken at any moment because of her refusal to be loyal to her Tutsi roots.
From her dangerous corner of Africa, Maggy Barankitse’s story spread around the world. Groups, associations, even governments sent her humanitarian aid, allowing her to continue her work and to grow.
And grow she did.
She grew Maison Shalom into a community. She built homes for the children. Not just an orphanage. She built dorms and paired older children with younger children. She fostered the idea of togetherness. Community. Family. Hutu and Tutsi were now brother and sister.
Since its inception, Maggy has built a hospital, a movie theater, a mechanic shop, a hair salon, a school, and her prized possession, a pool. Not only as a place for the children to swim, but also as a reminder of the blood that was shed and the baptism into a new life for the children.
Since 1993, Maggie has taken in more than 20,000 children.
They call her “The Angel of Burundi” and “The Mother Teresa of Africa.” Often compared to Nelson Mandela in her passion to make the world better, Maggie insists there is nothing special or extraordinary about herself.
“I know I can never stop the war, but I can stop it in my heart and in the hearts of the children.”
After 20 years, peace finally settled in Burundi. But it would not last.
In 2015, unrest resurfaced again. Maggy was forced to go into hiding and flee to Rwanda after threats from her own government.
Maison Shalom in Burundi was shut down. The children who were living there were relocated to Rwanda to be with her.
As she waited for the current president’s term to end, she got news that one of the men she had raised from a boy was killed.
She had to plan his funeral from a different country.
“He will be buried without me or his brothers and sisters of Maison Shalom. It is a very hard time for us all. That is what war does. I am only a mother who wanted to educate generations of young people to break this cycle of violence. I will carry on, no one can stop love.
And Maggy has carried on.
On April 24, 2016, Maggy was awarded the $1.1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity — an award given to humanitarians in memory of the Armenian Genocide.
She will use that money to continue to educate her growing community of children now living in her temporary Maison Shalom camps in Rwanda.
Even though Maggy is still living in exile, she is preparing her adopted Burundi children for the peace that she is sure will come.
“I WANT THEM TO COME BACK TO BURUNDI AS ENGINEERS AND SCIENTISTS, NOT AS REBELS BEARING ARMS.”
And that is exactly what is happening.
One woman. She was stripped naked. And ashamed. Humiliated by her friends and family and loved ones.
In the middle of a troubled continent. Captive inside a country that was embroiled in a civil war of heartbreaking proportions. 100,000 Burundi citizens murdered.
And she saved over 20,000 orphans. Single-handedly.
It’s almost incomprehensible that she was able to stop a massacre that had enraged the entire country for so long. One woman.
In truth, you are no different than her. Same flesh-and-blood. Same fears and failure. Same dreams, hope, and ambition.
You are going to face hardship. You are going to be tested by people who hate what you do and who you are.
“YOU DON’T KNOW HOW POWERFUL YOU ARE.”
Believe that your dream is possible. Have faith in your ability to figure it out. Love what you do. Serve others.
Change the world.