“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead
You might have heard the above quote before. To me, Maggie Hanson is the embodiment of its meaning.
Can you imagine raising over $50,000 for a cause that you care about? Together with her team at the First Presbyterian Church of Bend, that’s what this remarkable lady has accomplished.
Maggie is a champion of the Batwa Indigenous People. A bit of background is necessary here — the Batwa are an indigenous tribe of East Africa. They’ve been dealt a slew of injustices in recent decades, including being forced from their traditional forest homeland. In the tiny country of Burundi, the situation of the Batwa is particularly dire, as Burundi ranks near the bottom in almost every margin of international development. The Batwa of Burundi are the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world.
The funds raised by Maggie and First Presbyterian – in partnership with African Road, Batwa leader Evariste Ndikumana, and his ASSEJEBA team – have enabled three villages gain citizenship through ID kits, grow food, enroll children in school, and access health care for the very first time. These triumphs have brought hope for the future of the Batwa during challenging times.
I had the chance to catch Maggie for an interview this week. Her heartfelt passion for the Batwa is infectious.
Q: You are an amazing champion for the Batwa in Burundi. Why is this partnership important to you?
A: I’ve always had a heart for Africa. My first experience was two trips to Senegal. We partnered with World Vision and an indigenous group there. From that point on, I’ve just always been drawn to Africa. And the other piece that lead us to Burundi was that I was heading up our former child sponsorship program at First Pres. We had reached a point where we said, “we want to do more”. It was difficult to find the right organization to work with because they’re all huge.
Around the same time, we learned about the Batwa. It’s just unbelievable to think how the Batwa have been treated and marginalized throughout history, and it still continues today.
I think of the three villages that we’ve partnered with, which is just a small part of the population, and it’s kind of a light in the darkness and a story of hope. I’m just so amazed and fortunate to have that story in my life and to be able to do something about it. To think of the difference that has been made in the last two years – that’s why it’s so important to me. It’s not just an outreach to me; it’s my passion. It’s something that I intend to devote a huge part of my life to as long as I’m on earth. I have this fire burning in my heart and it will be there forever, I know!
It’s something that I intend to devote a huge part of my life to as long as I’m on earth. I have this fire burning in my heart and it will be there forever, I know!
Q: What would you consider the greatest success of this partnership so far?
A: I find it amazing that despite the political upheaval in Burundi, this project has been able to move forward. Evariste and his team have continued to implement in spite of everything going on in their country. We launched the education and agriculture projects two years ago. Since then, they’ve had crops planted and harvested and enrolled more than 200 kids in school. The underlying theme in all of this is that they now feel like they’re recognized citizens, they’re empowered, they have pride and dignity. They’re people who stand up and say we’re farming, we’re feeding our families, our kids are going to school. The progress that’s been made is totally mind-boggling. Of course, none of this would be possible without Evariste and ASSEJEBA and the support of African Road.
Q: You visited Burundi with other representatives of First Presbyterian in 2015. What was the most memorable experience for you from your trip?
A: That’s easy, but hard at the same time. The first village we visited was Gahombo. The villagers all come down to the road greet us, singing and dancing and moving us right on up to the top of the hill where the village is. It’s clear that this village is facing extreme poverty. I’ve been to a number of developing countries, and this was the most difficult, sobering poverty I’d ever encountered. But they sang and danced in spite of it all. There was one woman who had a newborn baby invited us into her hut. She welcomed us into her little home… it was unimaginable to me. It was a very dire situation. She was so hospitable, and we were grateful for her hospitality. Afterwards, we all got into the car and it was dead silent. Tears were running down our faces; we were kind of in shock.
At this time, we were about to start our first project together, which was the ID kit project. I asked Evariste, “how can we be talking about getting ID cards for people when they’re starving?” Evariste said, with his signature chuckle, “Maggie, if we give them rice and beans that will last for 2 weeks, and then they’ll be right back where they were. How do we start the Batwa on the road to sustainability? By gaining national ID cards, they’ll be citizens of Burundi, and they’ll be able to start overcoming the systemic challenges that keep them in poverty.” What I realized then is that there’s that struggle between your heart and your head, and I was in my heart. I said to Evariste, “I’m trying to start to understand. I know you know what’s best.”
That was a turning point for me. That story helped me really get my head around why we’re doing what we’re doing and why it’s so important. It’s that whole idea of hope and partnership and transformation. It’s a slow but steady process; it’s not something that’s done overnight. That’s why we so value the partnership with African Road. And that’s what will hopefully make it sustainable.
Q: What do you think makes African Road’s work different from other organizations?
A: African Road is a perfect partner for us and the way we think! It’s the whole way that African Road operates; the framework of being a partner not an organization that’s in charge. It’s not fixing or directing – it’s not a hierarchy. We are walking alongside these communities in friendship. We’re all in it together.
It’s wonderful that we have the opportunity to stand with Batwa leaders like Evariste. This work would not happen if were not for these remarkable leaders. It is there work on the ground and their understanding that carries the work forward.
I also love the fact that African Road is down to earth and not a huge organization. Though African Road is growing, and there are more partnerships than ours, we have a comfortable relationship and feel very valued and supported on this shared journey.
Q: What do you like to do in your life outside of the FPC Partnership – which you put so much time into!
A: On the local level I am involved in a partnership between FPC and its neighborhood school Bear Creek Elementary where I coordinate an after school tutoring program for Latino students grades 1 through 5. Tutors help their students with reading, math and homework, play games and enjoy a special relationship. The program has been going for nearly 10 years and is very successful.
I do have a family and enjoy spending time with them! My husband, Rick, and I have two grandsons, Jack and Max, who live in town and we love hanging out with them and their parents. Rick and I like to travel when we can and also enjoy the great outdoors here in Bend hiking, skiing, kayaking and walking our wonderful dog, Gus.
Q: Any advice for other people who want to get involved?
A: Yes! For anyone who is interested in what we’re doing, and might be interested in supporting part of what we’re doing, there are all kinds of ways to plug in. If something that touches your heart, there are many more things that can be done to empower the Batwa. I’d love to see new partners get involved to make even more transformation possible.
Here in Bend we are always looking for new folks and/or organizations to join the Burundi Team. We also have our Christmas Market on Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and 10 where we will be selling East African handcrafts to support our partnership.
If you or your organization is interested in getting involved in the First Presbyterian Bend partnership with the Batwa or would like more info, contact African Road.