Maison Shalom (House of Peace) is a huge project that has literally changed the face of Ruyigi town, and the powerhouse behind it is Maggy, a very determined woman.
The project started as a way to protect orphans from both sides of the Burundian ethnic divide (tutsi or hutu) after the civil war, but has expanded to include a bank (Maggy asked the main bank to open a branch here to provide facilities for people in the community), crèche, cinema, hotel, shop, resource centre for learning sewing and computing, mechanic training, mother and child centre, and hospital being built – most staffed by children who have grown up in Maison Shalom. All of them are named after the angels – angel guesthouse, angel bakery etc, as this is how Maggy views the children she has saved and lives amongst.
"We are the same family, no hutu, no tutsi," Maggy tells the children. "I know I can never stop the war, but I can stop it in my heart and in the hearts of the children. We now have children coming to us from Rwanda, from DRC, from so many places."
I know I can never stop the war, but I can stop it in my heart and in the hearts of the children.
The project has also built five separate villages around the town, which still provide homes for thousands of orphans. The children are separated into houses, about 5 or 6 to each house, and the older children look after the younger ones. Siblings stay together, and other orphans are placed after various consultation programmes.
If they have any relatives at all, they are encouraged to keep them by helping them with practicalities such as food, clothing etc. Older children, if they wish, are encouraged to legally adopt the younger ones, and they are given title deeds to the house so that they actually own it.
The children around the villages carry out many tasks such as looking after younger children, cooking, cleaning etc, but all of them are voluntary to encourage a sense of responsibility and sharing.
Maggy also sends several students overseas to study for a degree (37 at present). Overall, over 10,000 orphans have now been helped since the first years of the war (it began in 1993).
Maggy's determination and vision for start Maison Shalom was born out of an unimaginably traumatic experience at the beginning of the war back in 1993. In an interview she recounted this heart-breaking story:
“I am a tutsi woman. Before the war began I already had seven adopted children, four hutu and three tutsi. When the killing began, people were demanding to know who was hutu and who was tutsi. But I said, you can’t separate children, I refused to separate them. But no one would protect us all, so we went to the Bishop’s house, thinking we would be protected in God’s house. There were many other people already there.
On 24 October 1993, the tutsis came and demanded that we handed over the hutus to them. I refused, but they beat me and tied me up and then covered the building with fuel. I was so frightened, but I remembered I had a little money and I offered them money to spare the children. They did, and allowed 25 of the children to live.
Then they set fire to the building with everyone else inside, and killed 72 people in front of my eyes.
The whole thing, it took from 9am to 3 in the afternoon. They only let me go because I was tutsi. I was so frightened and distraught, but I could not see any of the children, so I went to the chapel to pray. I said to God, “show me how, show me how I can continue to live after this.” Then I heard my oldest child say ‘we are here’, and they were, all seven of them, hiding in the chapel with the other children.
I saw then, I decided I needed to help create a new generation. It was my absolute conviction. So I took my own seven children and the other 25 to the cemetery to try and find a safe place, I knew that if people saw the children they would try and kill them. We were very very hungry. I thought ‘where can we go to be safe?’ And Lysette, who was only four said ‘ActionAid can help’. So we went to the home of a German man (who was working for AA at the time), and that is where Maison Shalom begins."