Marguerite Barankitse
Marguerite Barankitse


Marguerite Barankitse, the “mum of Burundi”

After living through the horrors of genocide in Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda, Barankitse has pledged her life to helping children and carrying out humanitarian work. Helen Nianias reports

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By Helen Nianias on

Stripped naked, tied to a chair, watching people being murdered by machete-wielding armed groups, Marguerite Barankitse didn't realise that she was about to find her calling.

On October 24, 1993, Barankitse tried to reason with her fellow Tutsis as they attempted to weed out their hated Hutu rivals hiding in diocese buildings in Ruyigi, Burundi.

To punish Barankitse for being disloyal to her ethnic group, the militia forced her to watch as they set fire to the building and killed every single person who escaped. Before fleeing, they threw her best friend's severed head on to her lap.

On that horrific day in October 1993, Barankitse had been in the building with colleagues, who were all killed. Not only had the murderers burned down the diocese building, they also set fire to nearby houses and killed anybody they found inside. After she freed herself, she found 70 children who had been hiding from the militia in their homes and took them on. They found sanctuary with a humanitarian who allowed them to stay in his home for seven months while Barankitse mapped out her next move.

What she witnessed was just one event in a long line of murderous attacks between the two ethnic groups who began fighting each other in Burundi after the Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected in June 1993.  

When she saw the massacre, she wished she was dead. "But, in my heart, when I found my children I understood that I had an amazing vocation: to create the next generation.”

"I lost my voice because I cried so much, but I think this is the vocation that God gave me," she tells The Pool during a telephone interview from the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda where she lives and works with refugee children.

Burundi has again been in turmoil since spring 2015 when the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, defied the constitution and ran for a third term in office, prompting protests and an attempted military coup. For speaking out against the government, she was forced to leave the country last year.

"I'm not afraid even now that the Burundian government has decried that I am a criminal. I stand up, with no violence in my heart, and continue to love."

Barankitse lost more than half of the members of her family during the massacres between gangs of warring Tutsis and Hutus in 1993, but she never believed she needed to take revenge on Hutus.

"I want to show to Burundian people that we are one family," she says. Barankitse put her money where her mouth was by adopting children regardless of their race or religion. "It was hard, because everybody – even my family – said, ‘Are you crazy?'

"But I saw it in my heart, in my conscience, that I must do something. Nobody understood me, but in my heart I was full of joy, full of hope that we would succeed," she says. "They laughed at me, but I stood up."

Over the years, Barankitse has taken in over 30,000 children, including some 1,500 former child soldiers. She has sheltered them from danger by hiding them, teaching them, feeding them, and by setting up her NGO Maison Shalom, which incorporates a network of different children's homes.

Over the years, Barankitse has taken in over 30,000 children, including some 1,500 former child soldiers. She has sheltered them from danger by hiding them, teaching them, feeding them

Burundi is not a great place to be a child. Forty-six per cent of girls and 34 per cent of boys aged 13 to 19 are out of school, according to figures from the Education Policy Data Center. It has been described as the “hungriest nation in the world”, and placed 184 out of 188 on the 2015 Human Development Index.

She has become renowned worldwide for her policy towards the division between Hutus and Tutsis by saying there simply isn't one. Her stance against ethnic divides is still unusual in Burundi.

This year, her work was again recognised internationally when she was awarded the inaugural Aurora Prize for humanitarian work. The prize is awarded by the 100 LIVES Initiative in memory of the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Over the 12 months, Burundi has become synonymous with riots and protests and upset. But the prize, says Barankitse, showed that her work was making a difference, however small.

The prize money – $100,000 plus a $1,000,000 grant to donate to the organisations of their choice – will be spent on helping children go to school and university, as well as supporting impoverished mothers and their children.

It's surprising to hear a woman who talks so frequently about God's love – 15 times in 40 minutes – feel anger, but she does frequently, especially when talking about the Burundian president. "I am human – I am not an angel!" she says.

"I cry often, even now when you talk," she says. "Because I don't understand why people must hate each other. When I see children in a refugee camp, because one person decided to do bad things to their people, then I cry."

30,000 children is a lot by anybody's standards and the joy she gets from them is immense. George Clooney presented her with the Aurora Prize and she laughs hard when she talks about her children's reaction to the celebrity. "You can't imagine how many young people drew pictures for me back here!" she says.

"They drew pictures of George Clooney and also of me – it's amazing. They were excited! Even the rural children, they knew about George Clooney. Now, with social networking, everybody knows [about celebrities].”

Barankitse has grown up with her charges. "It's the children who raised me – it's not me who raised the children. There were times when I lost all hope and the children would come and tell me jokes."

She talks of a deep attachment to all of her children, but has given most of them back to their families.

"Centres or orphanages will never give identity to a child and I don't want to institutionalise them," she says. In order to restore a child to their family, the Maison Shalom workers trawl through parish records, find the one where the child was born, and track the family down.

She has extra responsibilities for some of her children. Among them are twin girls, Lysette and Lydia. Barankitse was asked to raise them by their mother, Juliette, who knew she was going to die during a massacre. Tutsi militia asked all Tutsis to leave Juliette’s village, so they could kill the Hutus living there. Juliette was a Tutsi but refused to abandon her Hutu husband, and was murdered with him.

"I promised that I would keep the girls as my own," Barankitse says.

There is another favourite – Aline – who was wounded during a 1993 massacre against Tutsis when she was five years old. She was taken to a hospital in Germany where the doctors said she would die. "One day, she woke up,” Barankitse says. “It was a sign from God to say, ‘Never give up, I am with you.’" Now, Aline is grown up and married. Barankitse wept with joy during the wedding ceremony.

Barankitse has been dubbed the “mum of Burundi” – it’s not difficult to see why.


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