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Happiness? Least Happy? Happiest??

Happiness. An elusive state for many. A difficult concept to define. So many variables.

If you ask the googles about happiness, you get “Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. A variety of biological, psychological, religious and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources.”

A bit vague, but there you have it, according to the googles. (Really, googles? “have striven” is terrible grammar.)

Recently (March 20th, to be exact) the world celebrated International Day of Happiness, created by the United Nations General Assembly a few years ago, to recognize the pursuit of happiness as a human right.

International Day of Happiness

In advance of the UN World Happiness Day, some folks published The World Happiness Report Update, which as you might guess, ranks countries by happiness.


I’ll leave it to you to guess (or look up) the happiest country, but my purpose in mentioning the report has to do with the country ranked at the very other end of the scale: the least happiest.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, that ignominious honor goes to the country I currently call home: Burundi. As if we don’t have enough problems, what with political upheaval, tenuous security, continued violence, economic collapse, hunger, (I could go on and on), now they’re slapping us with saddest?? That feels like kicking a man when he’s down.

But here comes NPR to the rescue: publishing an article about what makes people smile in the saddest country in the world.


And it’s true: it’s a testimony to their strength, their resiliency, and their family ties. Despite all the factors working against them, they still find reasons to smile, to hug, to love.

A bit closer to home, I, too, have reason to smile, to hug, to love. To be the happiest! In spite of this blog post where I mourned Randy’s exile from Burundi once again, and made the comment “This time we know he won’t be back”, HE’S BACK!! Two weeks ago, the state department, in all it’s wisdom, made the decision to lift US Embassy Bujumbura’s Ordered Departure status and allow “employed, adult family members” to return. Other than two employees who have been working from Kigali and were allowed to return, the new status affected exactly one person: Randy McQueen, as he was the one and only employed, adult family member able to return. My non-embassy friends are calling it The Randy Rule. Speaking of happiness, I’m as happy as can be to be reunited.

I can’t tell you how good it is to have him back home. Here we are celebrating a Seder meal on Maundy Thursday with our good friends, whose company we treasure as the days in Bujumbura draw to a close.seder

When Randy returned in November, he was only here three weeks before the city was shut down for a day of unprecedented violence, and non-emergency employees and family members were ordered out once again. For Burundi’s sake, we hope that doesn’t happen this time. For our sakes, we at least hope it doesn’t happen until we leave in just seven short, busy weeks.

But for now, to heck with what naysayers report about Burundi. Today we are happy! Happy to be together, happy to be home–for now, and happy to celebrate Easter together.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!


And the winner is…

Not that I want to be accused of being like that elementary school soccer team where everyone who shows up gets a trophy, but we have lots of winners here!


Felicidades to every one who entered!  As of this writing, just over 24 hours after posting the contest, we’ve had 37 contestants with 47 different guesses and many repeats. Three cities tied for second place with four guesses each: Reykjavik, Budapest, and Buenos Aires, but interestingly, the city with the most guesses-6-was actually correct. Either I have some clever friends or my hints were too good.

Felicidades to everyone who correctly identified an -est.

And felicidades to the following random winners of various side categories:

Miranda King for submitting the first vote! Way to be on top of things, Miranda. (Or to be on FB while at work.)

Ian McQueen for submitting the first -est.

Molly and Ian for the most descriptive -est: Asunción-“the arm-pittiest”.

Lia Stone for the most entries at ten. Quantity over quality, right, Hunter?

Mark Griffith for submitting the most heartfelt and well thought out rationale.

And Christina St. Michel for being the saddest that we’re leaving Africa. I’ll still be here another six months, so maybe we can still see each other!!

And here’s your very last hint:

Bolivia waving flag

However, this hint is not as clear cut as it might seem. The country represented by this flag, like many countries (15 according to the googles), has more than one capital.

Drum roll, please.

Felicidades to Jared King, Andy Jacob, Hannah Eagleton, Becky Baskin, Jon Hood, and Justin Belk who put together all the hints to correctly guess

La Paz


We’re going to La Paz, y’all! The highest national capital in the world at roughly 11,975 feet above sea level. (Much like the source of the Nile, this -est is disputed, as some people say La Paz isn’t a capital–Sucre is–and gives the honors to Quito at a mere 9,350′.)

Thanks, everyone, for playing. It was fun to see all the guesses and all the -ests. That was definitely the most popular clue.

And here are some reasons I’m excited about our new post:

  1. First and foremost, because it was Randy’s first choice. After being such a good sport (most of the time) during the past two years, I’m so pleased he got his wishes.
  2. And following as a close second, I think the job itself is going to be great. I’ve heard nothing but good from the person there now. I think it will be interesting and challenging, but a little less stressful than Bujumbura. (Ha–almost anything would be less stressful than Buj right now.)
  3. Spanish! Randy promised he’d learn. Donde esta la tortuga, right, Ian? L’addition, por favor.
  4. It looks beautiful! And there’s no malaria!! And it’s not hot!!
  5. We’ll be a little bit closer to home and 1-3 time zones away instead of 7-9.
  6. People might come visit!!
  7. I’ve never been to South America and there are so many things I want to see and do there–Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Galapagos Islands, Quito, Patagonia…and all the local treasures I don’t even know about. And people might come visit. Oh, did I mention that already?
  8. I think it will be interesting politically and diplomatically, but again, a little less “interesting” than Burundi is at the moment!

Only fitting. We’re going from The Buj to The Peace.

And total extra points to anyone who identified the hidden clue in the very last line of the hints post. Be honest; did anyone get it?

Peace out and start planning your visit! ETA should be around August 2016, give or take.


Happy Guessing

And may the odds be ever in your favor.

The handshake has arrived.

Our fate, well, at least our destination for the next two years, which has been in the hands of others, has finally been revealed.

But before we celebrate the elaborate GeoReveal (like a gender reveal, only different), let’s have a guessing contest!

Here are the rules:

  1. Anyone may enter. However, if you were privy to the Top Six bid list, (you know who you are) please submit your guesses privately, via email or FB private message, as you would have an unfair advantage.
  2. You may enter as many times as you’d like. (Really, there are very few rules in this contest.)
  3. Enter the name of the city. Remember, the state department, in all its wisdom, refers to these locations as cities, not countries.
  4. You may submit guesses via comments on this blog or on FB comments on this post. Or any other way you can think of to publicly share them. WhatsApp. Hangouts. Skype. Viber. iMessenger. FaceTime. Smoke signals. Skywriting. Shout it from the rooftops. You have to admit–we have way too many choices of ways to communicate.

But whatever you do, you should enter a guess. Just because you should be a good sport and play along. And because the prizes are so cool. Like free room and board when you come to visit. And the pride of knowing you guessed well.

So then.

Here are the hints:

  1. You’ve likely heard of this city. I mean, maybe. If you’re pretty decent at national capitals. I am surprised to be giving this hint, as I was expecting to be saying the opposite. Most of the cities on my list you’d likely never heard of. Generally, if you’ve heard of it, I wouldn’t be going there.
  2. You’re more likely to visit us here than our present location. Unless you’re Britta Erickson or one of our Kigali girls, because they all visited us here. (FYI: you’re all welcome to visit, and Britta, if you come, it’ll be like a tradition!)
  3. It’s not on the same continent as our present location. That is in response to the mandate Randy laid down: NO. MORE. AFRICA.
  4. Its climate is…surprising. It’s full of interesting contrasts; for example the diurnal temperature variation is typically large. Who knew?
  5. As national capitals go, it’s a superlative. That means it’s a ‘something-est’. You know, like biggest or smallest or coldest or hottest or cleanest or dirtiest or some other -est. You get extra points if you guess what -est it is.
  6. Its inhabitants speak a different language than our present location.  I mean, that’s not really a good hint, since they speak Kirundi here and only here.
  7. It’s a post with no USAID presence. Now I know that doesn’t mean much to you non-Foreign Service people, so that’s just a little trick to throw people in the know off the trail.
  8. We’re really excited. It was #1 on our Bid List, which is absolutely amazing to me, because I never never never expected to score this.

So there you have it. Let the guessing begin. Free room and board when you come to visit!! Please please please enter your guesses so I can share our news soon. You know I don’t keep secrets well!

Peace out, y’all.

Musical Continents

First, disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: OK, so I stole the title from our very witty finance guru; it was the phrase he used when he dispersed our travel authorizations for yet another Ordered Departure. It does aptly describe the game we feel we are playing.

Disclaimer #2: Much of this news has already made it to FB and emails. so if we’re in touch that way, this may all be old news. Sorry for the repeat.

Disclaimer #3: The overarching theme of this post is sadness. (At least after you get past the turkeys.) If you’re not up for being bummed, you might want to skip reading any further. Sorry, but from the beginning the point of this blog was to capture the moment, and right now the moment is sad. There’s just no way around it.

So if you follow this story, you’ll know from my last post in September that we were awaiting the final decision about our exiled family members returning. We were hopeful then doubtful then hopeful then just plain exhausted from the waiting. But finally, at the final hour, the Ordered Departure was lifted and our families were allowed to return.

This long awaited moment was a sight for sore eyes, to be sure!

Randy in Buj


Randy returned on the Friday before Thanksgiving, sporting three frozen turkeys in his luggage, just in time for the holidays! We had a great Thanksgiving together, celebrating two wonderful meals on Thanksgiving with colleagues and Marines,


fried a turkey just for the two of us over the weekend (first time ever–it was delicious and we ate the whole thing–just turkey, no sides, no lie),


and joined a wonderful group of missionaries from all over the world on Sunday.


IMG_6389 IMG_6390

We were thankful beyond words–to be together and to be celebrating this uniquely American holiday so richly.

(One other little Thanksgiving note before I move on to the sad part: someone had asked us to fry a Burundian turkey for one of the feasts. I brought it home and put it in the sink. When Randy opened up the package, he gasped and exclaimed: “It’s a marathon runner turkey!” I said, “huh?” He replied, “There’s not an ounce of fat on it!” Ha ha ha ha ha. Those Butterballs never tasted so good.)


(Didas, one of our favorite guards, was fascinated.)


Then last Friday, December 11th, just three short weeks after Randy’s return, we were woken at 5:45 in the morning by a phone call from the Health Unit nurse reporting that she didn’t think she’d make it into work. There had been heavy gunfire since about 4:00 am. This was not an unusual occurrence, but something in her voice sounded different. We tried to go back to sleep, but by that time, even we could hear it. (I usually don’t hear anything in my little soundproof bedroom with my noise blocking curtains, fan, A/C, generator, and sound machine.)

A few minutes later we got the “shelter in place until further notice” text, and thus began one of the longest and loudest days of my life. Gunfire, explosions, rapid-fire artillery continued for almost 18 hours. Some of it sounded so close I thought it was in front of my house. We found out later that police (or military–not clear which) had set up less than a block away, shooting across the ravine into the neighborhood to the south, which has long been a hot spot. No wonder it sounded close; IT WAS!

According to news reports, two military camps and one military school were attacked by the insurgents. It was the worse day of violence since the protests started on April 26th. This is not a good sign this late in the game. Especially since it appeared to have been a coordinated attack. Not. A. Good. Sign.

As a result, Embassy Bujumbura is now on Ordered Departure 2.0. Musical continents. Randy left yesterday, due to land in Denver as I write this.

(Here he is in the airport, drinking his last Primus ever. And I think he’s OK with that.)


The last of the children fly out tomorrow, and those of us left behind begin another season alone. Once again, no one can predict the future, except that it just doesn’t look good.

As sad as all this has been for us, and as difficult as the weekend was, returning to work on Monday was devastating. The Burundians we work with are gutted. They are sad, they are tired, they are frightened, but most horribly of all, they feel hopeless. Many are people of deep faith, but the reality on the ground is difficult to reconcile. Our hearts break anew for them and for this beautiful country.

As for us, we will make it through. Even though Randy was only here for three weeks, I am so thankful for that time together, for multiple reasons. First, of course, it was good to be together. But it was also good for Randy to be able to put closure on his life in Bujumbura. He left with one suitcase in April, planning to return in three weeks. He left yesterday, knowing he will not return. But most significant of all, this short time here, experiencing the violence firsthand, and seeing the devastation in his former co-workers on Monday, really softened his heart for Burundi in indescribably important ways. This is big, y’all.

And the timing is not terrible for us. In just three short weeks, I’ll head to Denver as chief post-op nurse for Randy’s total hip replacement surgery, scheduled for January 11th. Hopefully he’ll be in good shape by the time I return to Buj at the end of the month. Then I’ll pass back through Denver a month later to check on him after our annual conference in San Diego. By the time I return to Buj in March, I’ll know more about timing and onward assignments and how the next few months will play out. Unless things change drastically here, and they could, I will likely finish out my tour here alone, but at least it won’t be the waiting game it was the first time around. This time we know he won’t be back. And that’s OK. It could be way worse.

And so the adventure continues. The future? Bleak. Unpredictable for Burundi. But what a time to be here and to be able to stand side by side with these beautiful people. I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything, as difficult as it has been.

Please pray for Burundi, for peace.

And stay tuned. Next up, very shortly: HANDSHAKES!




Handshakes and Contests

Two years ago when I was preparing to leave my beloved Denver and head off to DC for some brief training, and then on to Destination Unknown, we agreed that we would be gone for one two-year tour. At the time, that sounded like adventure enough. (Little did we know what was to come….)

But somehow, about mid-way in, the idea of a second posting, a second two-year tour, presented itself. It did so in the form of a preliminary list of possible second posts. And before we knew what was happening, and much to even our own surprise, the conversation turned from if to where.

Randy says he clearly remembers the moment. His view was that I/we were being “robbed” of a fair experience because of the crisis and chaos, so he thought we should try one more time for a “real” experience.

Me? I’m not so sure. My memory is that the process stretched out over a long period of time, and at some point, we crossed over. I’m not even sure I can articulate why or how that crossover occurred, but of course, that won’t keep me from trying. So here goes a stab at recording a few reasons why I think we decided to give it another go:

  1. There is a great need. Worldwide, we are still about a dozen providers short. This means foreign service officers and their families are going into places with little to no health care available locally with no in-house medical provider. In turn, this adds to the difficulty of attracting quality officers to serve in those places. It’s hard to say no to the need, plus it’s nice to be needed.
  2. I’m qualified and available. There’s something to be said for the right man for the job, and my training, experience, and personality make me suitable for the work. Plus I’m not sure what other realistic thing I’d be interested in doing at this point.
  3. I’ve learned so much these past two years it feels wasteful to stop now. And I don’t just mean about medicine, but about so very many other things as well–state department policies, diplomacy, bureaucracy, politics, government, crisis management, geography, African history, African politics (President for Life 3.0), alternate views, living outside the bubble, missionaries on the ground, and so much more. It feels right to continue.
  4. It’s an opportunity to serve. Opportunities to serve abound, including opportunities in your own home, your own family, your own back yard, your own city, your own country. But it’s certainly worth noting when a unique and specific opportunity presents itself directly to you. I guess you could say I feel called.
  5. I’m not going to lie: I love to travel. When I see a map, my eyes light up and my heart races. I want to go there and often it doesn’t even matter where! There’s even been some research about this being wired into our DNA. This is no endorsement of the scientific validity of the findings, but this article even identifies the mutation of the gene. Whatever. I just think the suitcase should be stored in a convenient place and the vacuum cleaner less so. Now I know there are those reading this that get it, and likely share this passion. And there are those who don’t–at all. Let’s just celebrate that it takes all kinds of people to make a world, and I’m glad I’m me and you’re you!!
  6. I’m not going to lie, Part Deux: I love having someone else pay for my travel. Oh, yea, and meet me at the airport with my name on a placard. Boom.
  7. And lastly, I’m not ready to hang it up, nor am I quite ready to tackle a whole new thing at this point. So it just makes sense to Keep Calm and Carry On, with apologies to the British WWII propaganda machine.

All that to say, we’re considering a second two-year assignment. As you can probably imagine, there’s a prolonged, bureaucratic process for this. For me, as a soon-to-be second tour MED officer, it goes something like this:*

First the list comes out. It’s a preliminary list, subject to many potentially heartbreaking changes, but it’s a list. What follows is a scurry of research. Lists are made. Incumbents are contacted. The inside, off-the-record scoop is sought. Maps are consulted. (Of course, maps are consulted, because likely most of the places on the list are strange, unfamiliar places, as the state department, in all its wisdom, only refers to posts by cities, never countries.) As more information is gained, graphs are made; potential locations fall on and off the list; options are ranked according to criteria like climate, city and embassy size, length of commute, dog and runner friendly, housing, availability of household help (yes, we put that on the ranking list–coming home every day to a clean house, ironed clothes, and a cooked meal are perks this non-Suzy-Homemaker gal can embrace), job satisfaction, and overall quality of life, as far as it can be predicted from the research.

Eventually a list is finalized, called the “Bid List“. Submitting this prioritized list of six places you’d be willing to spend your next two years is exciting and filled with trepidation. What am I thinking?, you ask yourself. I just said I’d be willing to go where? A month ago I had never even heard of that place. But the list is submitted nonetheless.

And then comes the part I’ve never been good at, but am getting much better at due to much practice: you wait for someone else to decide your fate.

That’s where we are today. Waiting. The euphemistic term for the disseminating of this information is called “handshakes”–referring to an unofficial offer of your next post. We were due to receive our handshakes a couple of weeks ago, but were informed it would be Thanksgiving week. In an effort to manage my expectations, I’m gearing up to hear the news by Christmas, just to avoid the continual disappointment of inevitable postponements.

When said handshake is received, I shall sponsor a contest, as I did the first time. It costs nothing to enter, and you may enter as many times as you’d like. Winner gets free room and board when they come to visit. I jest: everyone gets free room and board when they come to visit, but enter the contest anyway. (Don’t laugh; we had seven visitors to Buj!! Two even came twice!) When I announce the contest, which of course could be any day now, I’ll offer hints, but in the meantime, you can be thinking about your guesses. The potential winning answer could be anywhere listed on the map below! (Wishing you all the best in reading the fine print!)

World map of embassies

So stay tuned! It could be any day between now and Christmas!


*At least, this is the process for me. As they always say, “MED does things differently”, so other foreign service officers’ experience may vary greatly.

Oh, What a Year!

A year ago today, Adam, Todd, and I were completing the last 12 or so miles of our trek up (and down) Kilimanjaro.


It was a quintessential bucket-list accomplishment, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, of which, in actuality, we’ve had plenty. (Once-in-a-lifetime experiences, that is. Some of them we could’ve done without.)

And what a year it has been since then, filled with things we never imagined or predicted. Here are some of the highs and lows, all mixed in together.

We attended our first ever Marine Corps Ball, right on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.


I spent a major holiday alone, separated from all family, last Thanksgiving–for the first time ever in my very long life.


I survived, but I’m fine if I never do that again. Sadly, I could very likely repeat that this year.

Megan came to visit Africa! What a fun trip and a great opportunity for her! OK, maybe that one we both imagined and predicted.





(BTW, I TOTALLY thought I wrote a blog post on this visit–we had such a great time–but I found the post in my draft folder the other day. I hope to finish it before this Christmas! )

We went to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, enjoying a completely different part of the world for the first time.

Randy’s father died, and we had a coup in Burundi, all mixed up in one big mess of a time.

And three months ago today, this happened:


Happy Three Month Anniversary, Val and Adam! (I really do promise a blog post soon about that wonderful, wonderful day!)

And here we are, October 17, 2015. Who would ever have predicted last year, as we were descending from Mount Kilimanjaro, that I’d be here a year later, in Bujumbura, 5+ months into being separated from Randy? Not me.

At least now, 5+ months in, the end is in sight. We really, truly, for sure, not-kidding-this-time, will know something soon. Our 180 days (the legal limit for an evacuation to last) is over in just three weeks. Sometime between now and November 9, we will find out our fate. It will be one of three end results: either (1) our Ordered Departure will be lifted and all of our exiled family members and co-workers will return, or (2) we will become partially unaccompanied with only adult family members returning, or (3) Bujumbura will become an unaccompanied post, with no family members allowed.

If scenario 1 occurs, I have three bottles of bubbly chilling in the fridge to celebrate. If scenario 2 occurs, Randy will return, along with only one other adult spouse. I guess the four of us will share the bubbly. If scenario 3 occurs, the six current employees here at post (and three working remotely in Washington or Kigali) who have endured this 6 month separation from our families will likely request a compassionate curtailment and begin the process of finding a new onward assignment. I’ll be sad to leave Bujumbura, sad to leave our friends and this beautiful country I have come to love, but way past ready to be reunited with Randy and have this waiting game over.

Which scenario is most likely? Your guess is truly as good as mine. The unknown, the uncertainty, the waiting, the hoping, the guessing has all been part of what has made this time so stressful and difficult. Regardless of the outcome, there is not a person involved who is not ready for this to be over, one way or the other.

This blog used to be jam-packed full of amazing adventures and good times. I’m ready for that to resume.

On or before November 9th, we’ll know.


No News Is…

We’ve all heard the maxim: no news is good news. Unfortunately, here in Bujumbura of late, I’m going to have to go with no news is…well, no news.

I should end this blog post here. That would sum it up nicely. (And no one could call TLDR* on me.)

The sad reality is…I have no news. August 26, a long anticipated day, has come and gone. For me, as an American observer, it marked four solid months since the manifestations (protests) began. For me, as a lonely wife, it marked four solid months since the day Randy left Bujumbura. For us as an embassy, it marked our last “flash point”.

Let me explain: For four months now, we have all been living under the stressful anticipation of what we’ve come to call The Rolling Date of Impending Doom. Surely something big is going to happen to us. Once we get this or that behind us, we’ll know more. If we can get through this election, or that event, we’ll have a better sense of the future. When this or that day comes, this “flash point”, where we anticipate the risk for a catastrophic event to be high, we’ll be on high alert, but if it passes without consequence (i.e., nothing happens), then the worst will be behind us, and we can get on with life, which includes bringing our exiled family members back. And on and on. The Rolling Date of Impending Doom.

We’ve been living like this for all this time, but really, all along August 26th was to be our last flash point. It was the official last day of the incumbent government, by which time a new government of some kind or another must be put in place.

And August 26th has come and gone. A new government, notwithstanding the question of its legitimacy, has been inaugurated. We still live with vague future potentialities, but no more specific dates. Nothing has happened. We are ready to move on.

Now let me explain what I mean by Nothing has happened. Of course, plenty has happened. High ranking government officials have been assassinated. People have been targeted and gunned down in their homes. Nightly raids continue. Human rights activists and peace loving civil servants have been attacked in their cars. Thousands of citizens have fled in fear. Schools and shops closed. The economy tanked. Life in the city was completely disrupted for Burundians. Plenty. Has. Happened.

But what I mean by Nothing has happened is…nothing has happened that has affected us as Americans, other than the initial coup attempt and subsequent brief closure of the airport in May. Since that enormous disruption which caused the evacuation of our families and pets, we’ve just been living with the Rolling Date of Impending Doom. But the Impending Doom has not occurred and we are ready to get on with it. We have passed our last flash point.

And we wait.

The present Ordered Departure status is in effect until September 10, just three short days from today. We eagerly await the cable that will dictate our future: the Ordered Departure status will be lifted, and our people will return, or it will be extended yet another thirty days. Many in our community are optimistic. In a rare, out-of-character-for-me moment, I do not share their optimism. “In three days (or sooner), we’ll know more,” she said for the thousandth time.

And so we wait.

In sum, this has been a difficult and frustrating time filled with a myriad of conversations, interactions, events, consequences, and perspectives not appropriate for this blog. I long to keep a good state of mind, body, and spirit, but feel I have fallen short of that goal. I’ve always believed that God won’t necessarily change your circumstances during trials, but rather that he seeks to change you.

Unfortunately, these trials have made me more bitter and angry, with me giving in to my frustrations, rather than heeding my own advice and focusing on the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps just committing those nine words to paper will inspire me to live them better.

Hmph. I’ll keep you posted on that one.

But despite my present circumstances and frame of mind, I treasure the chance to end on a more positive note. Since my last blog post, this happened:

11888036_10203919971594249_5925552916829422512_n(Blog post with details and photos galore to follow shortly.)

And this weekend, I successfully Road Tripped To Rwanda and Operation Super Q Reunification Project, complete with successful (and uneventful) border crossings, brought this guy home:


At least this begins the reunification of the McQueen family.

Stay tuned for news: the future status of the Ordered Departure, the wedding blog post (undoubtedly more upbeat than this one), and the ever anticipated topic in the Foreign Service: bidding!!

À bientôt!


*Too Long, Didn’t Read

Update or Outdated?

Things are so uncertain here that this update may become outdated between the time I finish typing it and when I hit publish. Nonetheless, here’s the latest:

My son likes to tell people that when his mother tells a story, she likes to start with creation and move forward slowly. His hyperbole is impressive but here’s the point: I can weave a good yarn; I can make a short story long.

And this is probably the most difficult story I have ever told, for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s complicated and politics are not really my forte. Secondly, it’s personal. Each person experiences his or her own version of reality, right? That’s why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell different versions of the same story. In fact, you can read another version here that is quite different from my own. Same story, different perspective. Thirdly, it’s sensitive. It’s a government story and I am a government employee, so by that necessity, it’ll be the somewhat sanitized version. Honest, but sanitized. And lastly, I’m trying to make this a one-size-fits-all story: one in the same story for those of you who keep up with the news, those of you to whom I’ve spoken recently, and those of you who are coming in from the cold, so to speak.

Now I don’t plan to start exactly at creation for this one, but it does deserve a little backstory, a little place setting. In this recent blog post, I presented a simplistic explanation of recent Burundi history and the current political situation. If you don’t know much about current events here, you should pause now and read that post to get up to snuff on the political climate here and now. That post was written towards the end of March. I’ll pick up here on April 25th, interweaving the story with my own personal challenges, events, complications, and perspectives; otherwise you could just read the news on Twitter, and this would simply be redundant.

In the days leading up to April 25th, rumor had it (keep in mind that rumor is currency: it’s all we ever have to go by) that the ruling party’s congress would meet that day and announce it’s presidential candidate. This was the inevitable moment we had all been waiting for. It was also the day of the Around The World 5K, which thankfully went off without a hitch, just hours before the fateful congress.

As expected, the congress met late in the morning of April 25th, and also as expected, the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD announced that the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, would seek a third term. (If you don’t know why that’s a problem, google “Nkurunziza third term” and you’ll get a plethora of commentary explaining it.)

And also as expected, forecasted, predicted, and dreaded, on Sunday morning, April 26th, the protests started. Anti-third term protesters took to the streets in true African style–throwing rocks, burning tires, marching, and generally causing an unorganized, uncivilized ruckus. And the Burundian National Police responded with water cannons, tear gas, and firing shots, mostly in the air, at least on this first day. (Did you know that what goes up must come down and people have been killed from bullets fired into the air upon their return to earth? That hasn’t happened here, but it can happen, and a bullet landed on the bath mat of one of our co-workers. Thankfully, she wasn’t home.)

So what was that first Sunday like for me? I was sitting on my porch and I heard gunfire. It seemed close. Now maybe if you’ve lived in the inner city of one of our more dangerous US cities or worked in a war zone, that would’ve been a commonplace occurrence for you. But for me? Not so much. If I’ve ever heard that before in my everyday life, then I’ve blocked it out, because that’s the first time I ever remember experiencing the sound of live gunfire nearby.

And here’s the thing: it’s not like we have on the ground newscasters relating all the events in real time with camera footage and reliable information (think: Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore during a hurricane). So we have NO idea what is really happening. I’m not saying it was shakin’-in-your-boots-scary, but disconcerting nonetheless.

And to add to the disconcerting feel of it all, Randy was packing to head to Wyoming later this same day. In multiple telephone conversations with his mother, he had sensed that his father was going downhill rapidly, and I had encouraged him to go. In an unforeseen act of unfortunate timing, his plane was leaving in just a few hours. You can imagine the stress he felt leaving me (and Quandary) behind. (His famous quote was that he was more worried about Quandary than me. Fair enough, as you will see.)

Thankfully, Randy arrived safely in Denver and made it to Thermopolis near midnight on Monday, thanks to the help of Adam, Ian, and his brother. He was able to visit with his father for a few minutes that night and spend the next day with him before his dad drifted into a coma. He died in the early morning on Thursday, April 30. I am ever so thankful that Randy was able to be there, and to have spent those last few precious moments with his dad.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (well, Bujumbura, really), we are settling into our new lives: uncertainty and its friend and constant companion-fear, hungry for realtime news, knowing the protests are going on every day–riots, tires burning, streets blockaded, protesters pushing to get to downtown, police responding with gun shots, tear gas, water cannons–and yet our embassy-bubble life widely unaffected. The protests (or manifestations, as they are called in French) are concentrated in certain quartiers, which are easy enough for us to avoid when traveling between the embassy and home. It was surreal. For me it was like knowing something was going on in another country, another continent, far, far away, and having to remind myself it was actually right in my back yard. Life went on as usual, going to and from work everyday, but with a palpable tension in the air, and a real fear of how things would develop. Stores started closing early. Schools closed simply because no students showed up–parents were afraid to let their kids go. The university closed, and six hundred students sought asylum outside of the embassy gates. (That is an accurate statement, but it seems worse than it actually was. They were peaceful and quiet and stayed an appropriate distance from the walls, never threatening us.)

One day I was standing near the windows in my office and I did hear gunfire really close. Suddenly the “duck and cover” alarm, which we hear every Friday morning during our weekly drill, sounded, and I yelled to my staff: this isn’t a drill! The protesters had made it to the side entrance of the embassy and the police had fired rounds into the air. However, it was over as soon as it started, as the police pushed them along, and they were gone. (It’s important to note here that we at the embassy, or even as Americans, have never been the target. Unlike in other countries of unrest, this isn’t about us.)

As things continue to ramp up, it suddenly hits me that I have to mobilize for a memorial service across an ocean and a couple of continents during an unstable time when it is likely they will be reluctant to let me go. (Bujumbura has no medical services that meet Western standards, so I’m kinda it. Me and a plane to get you outa here, so you can imagine their reluctance to allow my departure.) To make things worse, the following Monday, when I am attempting to prepare to leave on Wednesday, many of our locals, including both of my health unit staff, were unable to make it in to work. Public transportation had stopped, and even for those with cars, certain neighborhoods were blocked. The front office (embassy-speak for the ambassador and the second-in-command–the deputy chief of mission, from whence all decisions flow) told me that if my staff couldn’t make it in, we’d have to re-think my presence at the funeral. We negotiated and scrambled and made some arrangements and at 10:20 on Wednesday morning, May 6th, I was cleared to get on a flight later that afternoon.

It was a grueling week. Five flights, 30 hours of flying, dinner, an hour drive to sleep at Ian’s, an hour and a half drive back to Adam’s in the morning to meet up for a six hour drive to Thermopolis, a burial service, a night without sleep (a full eight hours and I never fell asleep once), a memorial service, another night of fitful sleep, another six hour drive back to Denver, one day in town filled with a few more complications not fit for this blog post, and another long-haul flight back.

(Optimistic people like me always like to look at silver linings, right? As bad as all this was, and it was about to get way worse, there were silver linings. I met my future daughter-in-law and spent Mother’s Day with all my children. I’m beyond thankful for these surprise blessings.)

You can imagine the shape I was in when, about twenty minutes before we were due to begin our descent into Bujumbura, the pilot comes over the loudspeaker and announces that we will not be landing in Bujumbura. The airport was closed. We would be going on to Nairobi and all of us destined for Bujumbura were to stay on the plane. I honestly can’t remember if it was at this point, or after we landed that he told us there had been a coup d’état in Bujumbura, but I do remember quite well the sinking feeling of oh crap! that settled down around my exhausted body and mind. Now what. Exactly why the front office did not want to let me leave: I was now officially “caught out”. There was a closed airport between me and my job.

The next ninety-six hours were not fun. And this story now diverges into two lanes: what was happening to me and what was happening in Bujumbura.

Without going into too much gory detail, while my husband was in Denver mourning the loss of his father, and my dog was in Bujumbura in the care of friends, I spent two days at the US Embassy Nairobi suffering through a roller-coaster ride of no information, conflicting information, and misinformation, then two days in Kigali, Rwanda, trying to figure out if and how I was going to get back to Bujumbura.

(More silver linings? In Nairobi, I had lunch with a colleague from Abuja who was also in town, and in Kigali, I spent the entire day with my precious Brooke, and ate Mexican food.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Bujumbura again), things were happening, the details of which I’ve only pieced together in the weeks following my return. Here’s what I’ve been told:

Wednesday, May 13th, the day I was to land, while Nkurunziza was attending a summit in Tanzania, there was an attempted coup d’état, followed by massive celebrations. Then starting at 4:30 the next morning, there was unprecedented violence. Some friends describe huddling in their inner hallways while gunfire, grenades, and explosions literally rocked their walls. The coup attempt had officially failed.

Following this ordeal, my co-workers also suffered poor communication while the embassy made decisions on their (our) future. Eventually it was decided that all family members, non-emergency personnel, and people who needed to leave for family or personal reasons would be evacuated to our official safe-haven, Kigali, Rwanda, on a charter flight scheduled for Sunday morning. No pets allowed. Somehow a couple of determined folks worked very hard to arrange for the embassy’s six dogs (including Quandary) and three cats to be brought overland to Kigali. I still don’t know how they made that happen, but thankful they did.

As for me stuck in Kigali, it was determined that I was to head to the airport, along with 11 marines and two other people who were caught out, and return to Bujumbura on the charter flight that was evacuating everyone else. (OK, not everyone, but almost everyone. Talk about feeling like I was crossing the picket line. Or going the wrong way on a one-way street.) I was able to say a quick good-bye to the second group of evacuees in the airport who were boarding the plane we had just arrived in, but the first group included people who have since moved on and I will likely never see again, some of whom were good friends.

Today marks four weeks since my return on that charter flight. We who remain at the embassy have settled into that horrible phase: the new normal. My husband is in Denver, unable to return even if he wanted to, as the embassy remains on “Ordered Departure” status per the US government for the foreseeable future. My dog is in Kigali, being cared for by strangers, to whom I am very grateful. There are about 16 of us, considered emergency personnel, continuing to work at the embassy, all without family, pets, and many of our friends and previous co-workers. This results in an increased workload and a decreased workforce that lacks the usual support systems. We have no sense of the future–not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, nor when the “Ordered Departure” status might be lifted and our families return. Since part of my responsibility within the embassy is mental as well as physical health, I question the sustainability of this current new normal.

As for our city and country, we teeter along in a steady state of stressful uncertainty. The airport re-opened a few days after the embassy’s frantic evacuation as well as the land borders. Life resumed some sense of normalcy, although many, both locals and expats, have fled. (Silver lining? The internet is better.) Today, the last of my non-embassy friends left town. I still drive to work every day, and have now started to venture out to stores and restaurants in certain parts of town, after two weeks of traveling only between work and home. The economy has tanked, and this in the third poorest country in the world. The protests continue in fits and starts. Many protesters have lost their lives in the melée. An opposition party leader was gunned down in the night near his home last weekend. There is no independent media. No one knows what will happen, and the prospects for peace are slim. The electoral calendar has been re-scheduled, but there is slim hope that elections can be free, fair, transparent, and credible. And then what?

While I admit that my main concern (and the subject of this blog) is for myself, the reuniting of my family, and the mental health of my charges at the embassy, my heart breaks for this country and its people. They have come so far in the decade since the end of their horrific and prolonged civil war. They are beautiful, hardworking, honest people in a breathtakingly beautiful country. They are on the road to democracy, freedom, progress. But the seemingly inevitable future is bleak. Please pray for Burundi.

In sum, I want you all to know that I have always, and continue to feel safe and unthreatened, albeit lonely and isolated at the moment. My heart breaks for Burundi, and yearns to be reunited with Randy and Quandary. I long for peace for this country, and for our lives to return to the routine we had come to love here.

In three short weeks, I journey to Denver and then on to Telluride to celebrate Adam and Val’s wedding, and to enjoy precious time with extended family and close friends, for which I am over the moon thankful and excited. In the meantime, I hold on to these words that Jesus spoke to comfort his disciples:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I’m thankful that Jesus has overcome the world, and I take heart that I know my final destination is heaven, but I could sure use some overcoming right here right now in Burundi.







Around The World 5K

I belong to a Facebook group called We Run The World. It’s comprised of runners (no surprise there) from the Foreign Service from (again, no surprise) all over the world. It’s quite inspirational and sometimes informative, as people ask questions, post achievements, and throw down challenges. If you follow this blog you may remember this challenge from the end of 2014.

Earlier this year, someone threw down the challenge of running a virtual 5k. The idea is that we’re all part of the same race, even if we’re spread out on multiple continents. The organizer organized it as a fund raiser on behalf of a Foreign Service family whose child was recently diagnosed with Diamond-Blackfan Anemia. Another FS runner designed the shirts. It was quite the global initiative.

Here at US Embassy Bujumbura I decided to join forces with the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) whose job it is to organize events for the embassy (among many other things). He and I spread the word, got people excited, ordered t-shirts, collected money, and chose a date.

The week leading up to the race was filled with rumors about a possible upcoming political event that put the reality of the race in jeopardy. I was devastated, because as I had mentioned in a recent newsletter article, organizing this event brought together many of the things I love: running, promoting healthy activities, fostering community, and organizing people to have fun.

As it turned out, the run was scheduled for early morning and the political event late morning, so we were able to gather and get’r done without a hitch.

From its humble beginnings as a 5K with a couple of friends, I’d say Team Bujumbura’s Around the World 5K was a great success, captured here in beautiful photos by my ever-ready photographer, Randy.

Here are Renee the ELF (English Language Fellow), Hilary, and Michelle our female winner, relaxing before the race starts:

IMG_9111Alida and Suzette, getting excited:




And they’re off! A beautiful day in the beautiful setting of Jardin Public:



That marine in the blue shirt didn’t stay in the lead for very long:


And the winner! David Tietze, who, much to my jealousy, just completed his first half marathon: The Kigali International Peace Marathon. Congrats, David; I’m totally green with envy, although running a half or a full in a city named The Land Of A Thousand Hills may not be my dream race!




A few more action shots:



HILARY! That HAIR! Can you believe this girl just carried that hair around for a full 26.2?? Congrats, Hilary!



Here are the race organizers in their glorious finish: Ian the CLO, Guita the lovely, and yours truly!


The US Embassy Bujumbura 5K really was a great success. We had fifteen runners, a cheering squad nine strong which included three toddlers and one Flat Stanley, and two dogs. Here we all are post race. Props to the head of the cheering squad, Jim and Kate Carney for support, IMG_9176time keeping, and the sign!



Here’s a close up of the fun shirts, designed by a FS officer in Kyiv, Ukraine. Note all the participating embassies from all over the world! (Note, too, this is soaking wet from the sweat of our winner! Plus, I like how CO rated as a country. While I’m in total agreement, I still don’t know how that happened! 🙂 )




After the race, some of our spectators took the opportunity to give some lovin’. It’s like a petting zoo, only better!


Even the ambassador participated. True to form, she was late, so here we are, walking the course with Quandary after everyone else finished.


This may seem like an uncharacteristic post: lots of pictures and an entire post dedicated to a relatively small event: a 5K. I decided to post this “latergram” because I wanted to preserve this wonderful memory of a beautiful day and a fun event. And because our Around the World 5K on April 25, 2015, may go down in the annals of history as our last happy day in Bujumbura for quite some time. 

it’s five weeks past the event today, and sadly, that statement still rings true. Stay tuned for the explanation of why in the next blog post coming shortly.


Happy Anniversary to us! A year ago today, we landed in Bujumbura, wondering what the heck we’d gotten ourselves into. And what a year it has been!

At the end of January, I celebrated my one year anniversary of leaving Denver and joining the State Department in this blog post. It was full of updates, reflection, looking back, looking ahead, evaluating. I feel like now, ten weeks later, it is too soon: too soon for another reflection post, too soon for another update on Burundi instability, and I sure can’t top my recent adventure posts.

So what should I do? I don’t want my Bujaversary to pass without recognition, so how about a photo essay? After all, a picture paints a thousand words.


Here are my travel partners and I, enjoying what we imagined were our last days in civilization, in Brussels, just before boarding our plane for our direct flight to Bujumbura.

It was such a precious moment: the memories of Brussels (and Manneken Pis), the awe of adventure, the anticipation of what we were about to encounter…

And then we arrived, to our new home, at long last:

View from porch

and our senses were overwhelmed with the new sights and sounds and smells of Africa,




They are an industrious, creative, hard-working group!




My co-worker’s daughter’s dowry ceremony. We felt very privileged to take part in the festivities, although we didn’t understand a single word. This was inside a tent that had been erected which took up the whole street right in front of her house.






Hiking upcountry in the beautiful hills and eucalyptus forests:


 And the oh so many amazing adventures:

RDM Canon Congo-062


017-2014-10-19 09.11.47

IMG_8524 The ubiquitous roadside markets with their luscious produce, in every village:


 Lots of interesting geology:


 And learning about the geography of the Rift Valley and it’s Great Lakes:

EAFR Photo LEOrbit

EAFR Photo LEOrbit1

EAFR Photo 9

Rift Valley

And sadly, the devastation from flooding, which recently wiped out several villages:







And our beloved hippos, which we visit most Friday afternoons at the Hippo Hole,           an embassy favorite





And fun with family:


And we made it. The exit gate as proof!

And sunsets to die for:


Alas, there are a thousand other photos to capture our lives here, but I guess this will have to suffice for now. If you want to see more, I think you’ll just have to visit. After all, we still have a year left to go!