The Foolish Woman of Ruyigi

It happened suddenly and without warning.

“At 9am, I was still in my underwear. I thought that after my prayers, I’d go and talk to the mob and calm them down… but then I heard the shouts and stones raining down on the roof. I looked outside and I recognised some of the crowd, all armed with machetes and sticks - some were my cousins… ” “Maggy”, they were screaming - “open the doors or we will burn you all”.

Marguerite Barankitse is a tall, graceful woman who simply doesn’t look her 45 years. She is an ethnic Tutsi who cares for orphaned children from the three ethnic groups of the region, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Within this simple fact is contained a revolution. In a country, victim to several genocides, a place where a husband can kill his wife and children, without remorse because they are from a different group, where neighbours are mortal enemies, where hundreds of thousands have been killed, Maggie is a dangerous symbol of love amongst hate. Maggy has helped thousands of young Burundian orphans to create a new life and with them planting her message of love and harmony in their wider community.

It is a clear, bright morning in Ruyigi, a small town some 200km east of the Burundian capital Bujumbura. The sunlight plays on people in the fields and in the main street. They politely greet each other here with a simple word, “Amohorro”. It means peace. But Maggy, The Orphan Keeper of Burundi doesn’t use the word much herself now. “Even those who come to kill” says Maggy, “use Amorohorro. It’s only words and the simple people have been deceived by the politicians”. She says “Shalom” - another small word, but here in Burundi, small differences mean a great deal. They mean life or death.

In 1993 Burundi seemed poised to enter a new era when, in their first democratic elections, Burundians chose their first Hutu head of state, Melcher Ndadaye, and a parliament dominated by the Hutu Front for Democracy in Burundi (Frodebu) party. However, within months Ndadaye had been assassinated, setting the scene for years of Hutu-Tutsi violence, in which at least 200,000 people have been killed. In early 1994 parliament elected another Hutu, Cyprien Ntaryamira, as president. However, he was killed in a plane crash in April - the same incident that killed the president of neighbouring Rwanda. This led to the Rwandan genocide.

Maggy was a bright child. She was born into a prosperous Tutsi family but was always something of a rebel, fighting with the nuns who educated her; she was told early on that she’d “have problems with her husband”. She excelled at college in the capital but wanted to return to her village where her mother was now a widow. When she came back, she began to teach children and made her family proud with a stable career. “She couldn’t accept young Hutus that had succeeded but could not progress educationally”. Even though Hutus achieved better grades, it was always Tutsi’s that were selected for university.

Her anger was very dangerous - for only Tutsi’s historically had access to education (thanks to the Belgium colonialists who saw them as natural allies and leaders) and for a Tutsi to want Hutus to have equal rights risked not only herself but her family and friends.

She was suspended but made a complaint against the state and won. However, there was a whispering campaign and she was threatened. Finally, she was awarded a religious grant to study in Switzerland. From this she spent some time in Germany and finally caring for the sick in Lourdes. After nearly three years away, she returned to her village - “I have studied to serve my people”, she said. This time she took up a post at Ruyigi college. Life returned to some normality. “But”, she says smirking, “no one would live with me because I have a big mouth… ” “People were always saying here, she is a foolish woman - she doesn’t want to marry or to become a nun - who does she think she is?”

But Maggie did know who she was. “Because I lost my father when I was little, my Uncle, who paid for me to study, so that when I grew up I knew that I would help the orphans to say thank you to the community. I took seven children originally. I took them without thinking that they were Tutsi or Hutu, just that they were children”. She began to care for the children simply as a matter of course, because it needed doing.

Chloe, a Hutu, was Maggy’s first child.

“… at my baptism I ask if I can stay and she adopted me. I was the first and then she adopted others”.

Because of Maggy’s example, Chloe trained as a doctor in Italy and returned to help her run Shalom House. Like Maggy, she is unmarried (“for the moment”) and feels her life must be put on hold so she can devote herself to others.

When Ndadye was killed, the Hutus thought it meant the start of a new genocide and didn’t wait to become targets, throwing themselves into killing. Every Tutsi was a target. Within two days however, with the help of the overwhelmingly Tutsi army, the backlash began and the country swam in it’s own blood. Little Ruyigi didn’t escape and the dark nights belonged to the killers. Maggy took her children to the Bishop’s House. “I knew he was a man of God and must give his life for us - I can’t separate my children - I said if they want to kill the Hutus, we will stay together and die together.”

By this time, Maggy knew that 20kms away her cousins had had their throats cut. The night was long. At some point the District Commissioner arrived. With him were 19 Hutu “intellectuals” - functionaries, teachers; some were members of the Hutu Frodebu Party. They were beside themselves with fear. He said that they would all be safe there. Maggy remembers telling him to his face he is a liar. He leaves and they are alone. A Hutu friend who had married a Tutsi woman also arrived - shaking with fear. Recalling this today, Maggy for the first time looks away. He said whatever was to happen not to let them have his children, Lisette and Lydia and made Maggy swear she will be their mother. She hides him in the roof. “Do you think I’ll die tonight?” are his last words that Maggie hears.

“Early next morning, I got up and washed the children and, although we didn’t have much food, I prepared milk and rice for the little ones so we could celebrate mass and sing together for our lives.” By now, they can hear the thud of incoming missiles from Tutsi helicopters firing into the nearby Hutu villages across the valley. The children are crying.

Then they came. Maggy is hit. Again and again. The children scatter in all directions and in the confusion, Maggy doesn’t know where they are.

“I tell them that there are no killers here but they strip me naked. I am bleeding and they force me to sit in the dirt. I recognise them. They are my cousins and they are screaming that I am a traitor and a disgrace… ” “They are screaming, ‘Where’s Chloe? We’ll burn the Hutu’. By now they are pouring gasoline onto the roof. Somehow, she will not be silenced despite the blows. “I tell them that just like Cain who killed Abel, God will punish them. I tell them that they are animals - no animals don’t even kill like this - and the love of God is for us not to kill… they are your brothers and sisters… but you can never reach Maggy. You can cut off my head but you can’t touch my heart because I am free and I will continue to love… even you, even now… ”

Drinking all the time, the mob is laughing and jeering, “where is your God now?” The Hutus are being burnt alive. The priests are butchered. Lysette and Lydia’s father comes down from his hiding place and says to Maggie “Don’t worry, I will die with dignity… ”

They hammer his head in. His wife, a Tutsi, cries, “Oh my love… ” so they turned on her and cut off her head, giving it to Maggy. The Hutus who are not burned to death are cut up crudely. Knives, hammers, machetes. Seventy children are slaughtered. Five hours. Blood and fire.

Naked, bloody and crying for her children and at all the insanity, she “begins to play Rambo” and leads the mob to where the church keeps the money. With that, she buys them off and at 3pm, they disperse.

“I stayed with the bodies and the severed head for an hour. I couldn’t move or think. And I started to talk - ‘You are the God of love… where I you? I said I lost my reason to live because I thought they’d killed all my children… Then I heard Chloe’s voice.’” She had been hiding in the clothes of the priest in the Sacristan.

“Chloe’s voice was like the voice of God. For all my years of searching for something, now I knew that this was my vocation - this is why I never married or had children and now it is why I am so happy - it is a calling from God. But I remember crying, ‘God why do you waste so much time? I am 37 years old and only now you tell me what my life is for… ” “But since then I have never lost my faith. And I believe we shall win because it is a marvellous world to live in and from that day, I make no plans - all because God confirmed his love to me on October 24th at 9am in the morning”.

“We buried the bodies with the alter cloths… ”

She took 25 children that managed to hide, to the house of a German NGO worker in Ruyigi, which had been evacuated, and stayed there for 7 months. She believes, that, although frightened, the people would not attack her because they were scared of the truths she’d told them.

“When I went out for food for the children, everybody looked at me, even my family laughed - but I prayed for them… so stupid and so afraid - you know we couldn’t take the Hutu babies to hospital for the Tutsi nurses would’ve killed them - but these evil things don’t come from simple people, but from politicians who say - ‘kill your neighbour and take his property’”.

One day in the market, a man with a knife came up behind her and a woman stall holder screams “NO - please don’t do this to this MOTHER”… . and I turned to him and said, “why do you hesitate… and he turned away”. “Even after a year they harassed us but I am still here and now we have built everything in the face of the killers… I see them everyday… .”. It seemed every time she went out into the village for food, she’d come back with another destitute child, another trauma, another member of Maggy’s new family.

Finally, Maggy persuaded the Church to give her an old school building to house her ever-growing family of orphans and those that nobody wanted. With start-up funding secured from the international development organisation Action Aid, Shalom House was born - ‘The House of Peace’.

The buildings themselves, a rambling collection of brick outhouses, needed repair. Maggie, Chloe and the original orphans set about cleaning the “family’s new home”. They planted their own food, living communally and taking whatever donations they could find. “Really” says Maggie, “I don’t know where the money came from, it just came… ”. Today, she can feed her family. There is a social worker and a psychologist and her “staff” of locals and volunteers and older children who care for each other. Most of the original orphans live together as families in houses built for them by Maggy within the community. Shalom is now a place for those new orphan arrivals that find their way to her or for chronically sick AIDS babies.

Despite the security risks, she regularly takes the road to the Tanzanian border and meets with Hutu refugees in the camps and takes children, like Aldo, whose parents died of cholera, back with her. The rebels have come to know her and leave her alone as do the twitchy government soldiers at the roadblocks. She has a unique immunity.

“I am a woman and the purpose of a mother is to give life - I am not pro Hutu or pro Tutsi… I don’t explain this to the children with words but with my heart - they live together and they work together, everyone who comes to Shalom House knows that they are safe. We laugh together and when I saw the children had understood the message, I decided to build them houses within the villages because my mission was complete… they can live together and spread the message by their actions. I am the grandmother now.” “God decided to create Shalom House. I did not create it, I am ‘Omma’ (granny), I am just a foolish woman".

Some kilometres away, Gloriose sits in her house built by Maggie. There is no electricity and the light of the kerosene lamp flickers over her eyes. Her baby is feeding at her breast and she looks so serene and calm. She was 14 when she was gang raped by Hutus.

“They killed my parents and it was as if I lost consciousness… ”. Her singsong voice drifts away.

“I didn’t know I was pregnant when Maggie found me in the refugee camp.”

“I wanted to keep my child - before the war I didn’t know about Hutu or Tutsi - I just loved my little baby. I called her ‘Inamohorro’ (‘child of peace’). But she was lonely, so one day, I met a man and he obliged me, so I have this one too”.

Shyly, she looks down and smiles, “I am stronger alone and I have all my sisters around me - maybe a man wouldn’t accept another’s child anyway, men are not important to me now… I don’t see the need for them and I don’t trust them.” The baby is full and fat and giggles on cue.

Felicien (not his real name) is a big man of 21. He fled to Rwanda in 1993 when his parents were killed in front of him. “I joined the RPF (Tutsi army) to revenge. For six years I fight and then by chance, I hear that a sister of mine is here and had survived. I deserted and came here to a place of peace not knowing what I’d find. I live amongst everyone now and see no difference. We have all lost someone, Hutu or Tutsi. I will stay here now and help bring up my little brothers and sisters”.

Inside one of the buildings at Shalom, a radio plays lilting African hymns. It is Sunday and the children laze around in the early heat of the day. In a shaft of light, Angeline drips a squeezed orange into the mouth of Martine, 14 months. They are both orphans but Martine has full blown AIDS. Later, Felix (1) and 8 others are to baptised in the local church before their expected imminent deaths. All have AIDS.

In the church, filled with singing, Maggy is surrounded by many of those who attacked her and killed her friends. She stands tall, a gracious silhouette. In her arms, protected and safe, Felix sleeps. She moves to the front for the blessing and the crowd parts with many smiles but some stony stares of defiance. Perhaps she doesn’t see them. She looks straight ahead at the priest who gentle hands make the sign of the cross on Felix’s tiny skull.

Later, Maggy puts the child back to bed. His body is covered in sores and his breathing is erratic and painful. Maggy walks out into the sun,

“We have so many children now with AIDS - Burundi has one of the highest infection rates in all Africa. I want to attack this evil and uproot it… the children come and we can’t do anything. But why must they die? I would like parents to continue their relations but to protect the children, so sometimes when the mother is sick with AIDS she comes and says, ‘I am poor, I want no more children, but I must lie with my husband’”.

“Then I give quietly the condoms - quietly because I am in the houses of the church. All the children that join their ancestors… they are an army of angels and they are around us. It is as if they are around us dancing - yes, an army of angels dancing”.

And she turns and smiles, “You know, of course, I am a terrorist angel… ”.

Arriving at Rutimbura, one of the “Shalom” villages that she’s built for the orphans, her appearance is enough to make the children run from their houses. Tiny hand reach up - they all want to be picked up and hugged. Older children scold younger ones; some are dancing for their ‘Omma’. Tiny feet stamp the earth, “gimagima… ”, they sing - “be proud, God loves you”.

“You know” she says, “I cannot be mother to all - there are too many but I can give them the tools to make their lives whole again - this is what is needed”. “We don’t want charity - I say to the NGO’s, ‘don’t give us protein biscuits - give me some money and I’ll build a bakery for ourselves - and that’s what we did’”.

It has worked - these are unique and loving families: older children look after younger, Tutsi and Hutu mixed. They live together and work together.

“I remember”, she says, “the speech a young girl gave to the village when we’d build her a new home - it broke my heart… ”:

“From our heart we have learned to forgive those who humiliated us… they killed our parents, they mutilated us but you can know that in Shalom House there is not one ethnic group but HUTSITWA. We learn to forgive those that killed our parents” - and she looks straight at the man who did … “We have learned to forgive and shed tears and those who cut us up do not represent Burundians… ”.

“I am a normal woman with a different vocation… I love God so much. Without God, I don’t know if I can love any child. For example, I have here a child whose father killed my aunt and uncle - he burned them to death. I gave him my best house and when he got his school diploma, I gave him the best clothes. Truly we must remember that we must forgive (them) because they know not what they do”.

At dusk, Maggy finds some quiet in her office. Under a pile of papers, she has a picture of herself receiving a prize (among several) from President Chirac of France. “… But you Europeans are so stupid - you give prizes to someone who does her duty… ”. The prizes though, as she rightly says, gives her a useful platform to take her message out of Burundi and seek funds abroad for her children.

A new day. Elizabeth, 47, is insisting that Maggy cuts her hair. They went to school together, but she is mentally ill and her husband used to beat her within inches of her life. She is a Hutu and has a son somewhere…

Children play around us, waiting to go to school in the African dawn. Agitated with her new haircut, Elizabeth takes a reluctant wash. In return Maggy ties a young Tutsi child to her back. “Makes her feel like a mother again,” she says. Elizabeth wanders off humming softly, while the baby sleeps warm and secure.

Night is falling on Ruyigi. Men and women come home from the fields, baskets on their heads. A hot sticky night, mosquitoes dancing, the village is quiet and smells of wood smoke. In Shalom House, on a tiny bed, only Felix’s rasping, irregular breathing can be heard. Perhaps tonight he will join the army of angels and dance around Maggy, his, and everyone’s ‘Omma’.

© Stuart Freedman