Burundi theater owner programs films for peace

On a recent Sunday afternoon a group of young moviegoers gathered by the roadside in Ruyigi, a dusty town in rural Burundi, where a wooden bulletin board outside this country’s second movie theater served as a makeshift marquee. Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” was the day’s feature. Youths in baggy jeans stood in line, rustling up change from their pockets and slowly filing into the auditorium.

It might have seemed an improbable scene just a few years ago, as a civil war raged and ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi populations polarized this small, impoverished African nation. But since it was built in 2007, Ruyigi’s theater has slowly grown into a gathering place for the many Burundians hoping to escape the cares of this war-weary nation.

The theater is the brainchild of Marguerite Barankitse, a woman whose work in Ruyigi has for more than a decade maher a national icon. Known simply as “Maggy” to most Burundians, she has worked to bring hope and unity to a country that saw more than 300,000 people killed during 15 years of war.

Since she founded the orphanage Maison Shalom in 1993, Barankitse has helped more than 30,000 orphans find a life off the streets. And over the past decade she expanded her work to include a sprawling complex she calls the “City of Angels,” where she’s built hair salons and clothing ateliers, two hotels and an auto body shop, all staffed by the orphans she cares for, known as “Maggy’s children.”

Yet the ethnic divide in Burundi runs deep.

“People didn’t speak together,” Barankitse says, describing the years of the war. “Even the restaurants were separate.”

Ethnic divisions made it hard for meaningful progress to take place, according to Barankitse. So three years ago she decided to build a movie theater, to bring both ethnic groups alongside one another on common ground.

“If I want people to have a dialogue,” she says, “they must be together.”

Today the theater’s daily screenings are events unto themselves in this quiet town. After the Sunday matinee, dozens of high school students joked and flirted outside the auditorium, sipping lukewarm Cokes at a nearby kiosk.

With time, sayde s Barankitse, the simple act of coming together might be enough to help carry this country forward.

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