If there is one thing I think we have all been learning through this pandemic, it is that we actually have zero control over our lives (as much as we like to pretend otherwise). No matter how much Herculean effort we put into planning, everything can be derailed in a moment. And having had that fact pounded into my head over the last 6 months, I celebrate that it is most definitely a COVID miracle that I am writing this post from my home in Kibuye!
Plan A: Take a five month home assignment in the US to reconnect with supporters and family, speak at conferences, debrief the last couple years in Burundi, update medical board exams, work on my master’s in medical education, etc. Attend CME conference in Greece on my way back to Burundi. Arrive in Burundi April 5, 2020.
Plan B: Greece conference cancelled. Rebook flights to fly to Burundi directly. Arrive March 28. Send passport to Burundi embassy in D.C. to get visa date changed to reflect March 28 arrival.
Plan C: Receive call from Burundi embassy that my passport is being returned to me with no new visa. Burundi airport closed March 22. Stuck. Wait. Find temporary job in Birmingham at local health department until return to Burundi is possible.
Waiting indefinitely was very hard. My bags were packed and I was ready to get back to my life in Burundi. And yet, there were mercies in the waiting, too. Having spent 10 years overseas, I had not had occasion to lean in to my passport country for a long time. And seeing the struggles and suffering firsthand in America - racism, uncontrolled pandemic, polarizing politics - provided the opportunity for me to grow in compassion and to learn so much (learning that will continue for a lifetime). I also connected with my local church more deeply than I have in years, and I remembered what I love about Birmingham and the people there even as I also saw injustice in new ways through my work with the homeless population.
Plan D: Get special authorization for a visa on arrival in Burundi thanks to the incredible efforts of our Burundian partners. Fly commercially to Ethiopia. Take a humanitarian flight to Burundi on August 5.
As the flight into Ethiopia began to land, I could see thick clouds out the window. The landing gear went down and I briefly saw hills and trees, but then the plane took a sharp turn upwards into the sky! We climbed and climbed, and then finally the pilot said he couldn’t land due to the clouds, so he was going to a nearby airstrip to wait for the weather to clear. We flew 30 minutes to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia: a dry, dusty place near the border of Somalia. There we sat on the plane for 5 hours waiting to return to Addis Ababa while the humanitarian flight went to Burundi without me.
From my quarantine hotel in Ethiopia, I investigated various options for getting to Burundi, but with the airport still closed to commercial flights, options were extremely limited. I would need to wait 2 weeks to get on another humanitarian flight. Thankfully, on day 8 of quarantine (and after another negative Covid test), they let me leave the hotel room and stay with a missionary family in the city which was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air.
Plan E: Complete 14 days quarantine in Ethiopia. Fly to Burundi on August 19. Complete 14 days quarantine in Burundi.
This time, things actually went even better than planned! The flight was entirely uneventful, and my luggage arrived with me. The Burundi airport was very well organized with socially-distanced queues, hand washing stations, temperature checks, and forms to complete about symptoms and about quarantine. All the passengers were tested for COVID on arrival and then we stayed in a quarantine hotel for 24 hours until we found out the results. Thankfully everyone on the plane tested negative, so they released us from the hotel to finish quarantine at home. I came up to Kibuye the next day and spent my Burundi quarantine time settling into my house after 9.5 months away and getting re-oriented to team life and work. Tomorrow is the last day of my second quarantine, and I will head back to the hospital on Wednesday!
So is the COVID miracle Plan E? Sort of. It truly is a miracle that I was somehow able to get back to Kibuye during a pandemic with a closed airport and an expired visa - and that I stayed healthy through it all. And we have several teammates waiting in the wings in North America who would appreciate your prayers for a similar miracle (but without the Plan D derailing)! For me, though, I think the miracle is a deeper settling into my Heavenly Father’s care for me no matter how many “worst-case scenarios” come true. [And of course I realize that none of this was truly “worst-case” - it just felt like it at times!] But I’m an Enneagram 1 (the perfectionist) and Myers-Briggs ISTJ and a firstborn - basically I like plans, lists, routines, schedules. When I travel, I think through what could go wrong and I make contingency plans in my head. I evaluate speed bumps along the way with straightforward reasoning and logic. But these weren’t speed bumps - they were mountains! And no amount of planning or reasoning was going to make them go away! And, as everyone reading this knows, there has been no routine for the last 6 months! Living in Africa has definitely grown my resiliency in the face of uncertainty - but these trials have tested that to the max and forced this thinker to reckon with feelings, too! Yikes! ;) Psalm 77:19 says, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” That verse was very meaningful to me when our team dealt with the flash flood years ago (see post here), but it is also relevant today. God provided a way back to Kibuye for me through seemingly impossible circumstances. And at times I didn’t see his footprints ahead of me, and I had no idea what he was doing. But he kept reminding me of his presence and his steadfast love along the way, and he kept teaching me and growing me through the waiting. I hope I will remember that miracle the next time I’m tempted to anxiously make contingency plans and doubt his care. Thank you to all of you who have been praying for me through all the waiting and travels!