Fieldwork in Uganda, Budongo Forest (2011)

Fieldwork in Uganda, Budongo Forest (2011)

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The importance of a fart joke

Before getting back to work and start studying the benefits of long lasting social bonds in chimpanzees, I want to understand my own behaviour in a social environment. Arriving in a new place, I always find it difficult to choose bonding partners and weigh up costs and benefits of investing in new social contacts. I can engage in small talk, but it bores me to death so I usually stay quiet and observe members of the group for a while. Then pick out my grooming partner later. I am getting good at it as last time someone only noticed me after 2 days being in the same group work.

Female-friends require more investment than males; evaluating how big the competition is they will accept you or not. Fortunately I am already in my 30’s and don’t have the body of a sun tanned model (working on that is a continuous process) so in women’s eyes less likely to run off with their mates. However, bonding with males is much easier. I get along very well with men who are a bit older, slightly taller, know what they want in life and are more up on the hierarchy level. It creates a ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ situation, which is comfortable for both parties and avoids awkward situations. Perfect for short term bonding, before the question ‘shall we have a drink at my place’ comes, you are packing your bags again.

Every human being should have a few special long-lasting friends, to invest in and who invest in you equally. It is vital for your mental health and definitely increases your happiness index. I am lucky to have a few, who I can ask to pull my finger and who smile if I then laugh with my own fart joke.

I am ready to start that PhD now.

Young Couple in the village Malen V (Cameroon, 2013)

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Rejected on Valentine’s Day

Those engaged in scientific writing might recognize what I am about to say...
You spent months in the field, digging in the mud, collecting poo samples of gorillas, or puzzling on transmission chains of Ebola patients, with the mourning and crying family next to your investigation tent as another loved one has passed away. Running through the forest, falling in mud holes elephants left for you, or driving hours on a motorbike with a cramp in your left buttocks, all in order to get the data, the information you need to understand the world around you better. And when you think you start to get answers for your question marks, you want to share it with the world, sometimes forgetting that not everyone is as excited as you are about gorilla faeces.

Once you get home, an enormous pile of data awaits you to be analyzed. It will take you weeks – preferably hidden in a wooden cabin, next to a beautiful lake in Canada with the occasional moose or bear strolling by. Because nobody will understand how much time (for God’s sake!) you can spend looking at numbers on a data sheet. I am a disaster in statistics, as a child I didn’t understand the difference between ‘half’ and ‘double’… fortunately, my highly intelligent family accepted me as I am and often appreciate me for my developed social skills. I got over it eventually, but still can’t get my head around what exactly an ANOVA means if I don’t calculate it myself.

By the time you have your paper ready for publication, people have moved on with their life, they’ve travelled, children were born, and careers have been made. You have aged, probably grown a beard, but you are proud of your work! You managed to narrow down months of work to 7 pages maximum, where the discussion concludes that more research is needed.

Three months later, reviewers have done their work and you click hopeful on the email blinking ‘your submission’.

“I am afraid that we have decided to reject your paper”

I hope this friendly moose and bear are still around to keep me some more company.

Male Gelada, or "bleeding-heart monkey", Simian Mountains, Ethiopia - 2015

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Word of the year 2015: “Seriously?”

Leave the new year’s resolutions for what they are, you won’t be able to lose that weight, the handsome man you would fall for on Tinder won’t have that much hair as he shows on his picture, you won’t find the job of your dreams and after one week of intense jogging you will find your couch much more interesting than the training program you downloaded on your smartphone. 

Much nicer is to reflect a bit on the good things that have happened in the past year!
Personal 2015 moments to remember

Brother: “So you donated a 100 dollars to the Virunga National Park and send us a post card that that was our Christmas gift for this year? Where did I deserve a sister like that! But it’s ok, the gorillas need it more”.

Boss : “Veerle, tu as tutoyé le Ministre!”

Y: “I don’t care if I need to come to Ethiopia to see you.  I’ll be there in 2 days, might need to bribe someone to get the visa sorted out though”

The Ladies: “Even after months of not seeing you, it seems like it was last week. Give me a hug you Ebola-fighter!”
The Boys: “Who are you again? Doesn’t matter, let’s have some beers and an excessive amount of rosé and discuss life, love and world problems.”

Honest Mistake
Veerle: “did they really choose ‘I wanna be your dog’ by The Stooges as their weddings’ first dance? That is so cool!” 
Family: "No V, it's ‘I wanna be adored' by the Stone Roses!"
V: "Oh ok, ...still very cool!"


Daily life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, 2008)

Thursday, 22 October 2015


Back in Kinshasa after 5 weeks of cholera intervention, and wondering …
What will I wear for my sister’s wedding?
Do the new born babies of my best friends look like the fathers, because its nature’s way of telling them it really is their offspring?
Why can’t I ask him to go for a beer and a rock concert anymore?
Why did the parents of my Congolese colleague gave him the name ‘Bienfait’? And more, why not?
How is my friend doing after the hospital in Kunduz was bombed?

All of a sudden I get scared that my friends and family will forget about me. That they will remember me as ‘that crazy girl who worked with primates, spent some time in the forest and then decided to chase epidemics in Africa’ but we lost track of her somewhere between ebola and cholera. 
My Norwegian friend invented a word for this feeling, and it’s the weirdest (but very beautiful) word I heard in years: “Smengel” (to be pronounced with Scandinavian accent). It’s the feeling of not being missed anymore. To feel annoyed not to find the words to express what situation you are in and to feel even more annoyed when nobody understands you.

One day I would love to write a book, not because I think my story is more interesting than anyone else’s, but I am scared that I (and others) will forget everything that is happening and has happened. Being alone in the forest of Cameroon I read a book about an anthropologist and his work in the same area. Everything sounded familiar, and I felt like someone understood. I was not imagining things! Absurd situations, difficult to explain, and to believe can become daily business before you know it.
Entre loup et chien?

Checking water sources during the Cholera outbreak, Kindu, RDC. (Sept, 2015)

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Ali Baba and the 7 "enquêteurs"

Piles of burning plastic in the middle of the road, you get stuck in the mud every 3 steps and a strong smell burns your nostril hairs on the way to the ‘centre de santé’. Bikenge is not really the most charming village in Eastern Congo. Young men come here to look for gold but find themselves lonely and far away from home. Daily life is dominated by promiscuity, prostitution, sexual transmittable diseases, excessive alcohol and drug abuse. When I think about it, it sounds a bit like 3 days of Tomorrowland, but with nice weather!

I put together a team of 8 motivated researchers to cross the whole ‘Zone de Santé’ to do a survey on health indicators in the area. It was meant to be as one of the candidates presented himself: “Je m’appelle Ali Baba et je serai ton chef des enquêteurs”. Hired!
Inaccessible roads guided us to the most isolated villages where you find amazingly friendly people but living in difficult circumstances. Households up to 20 people living under the same roof, having no access to health care, women are obliged to deliver at home putting themselves and their babies at risk. Family planning? Non non, il faut mettre au monde! When it is survival of the fittest this is the way life goes.

Congo is a fascinating place. Not only I had the honour to meet Ali Baba, but I can add Khadaffi, Beoncé, Bob Marley, Julius César, Nicolas Sarkozy and the twins César 1 en César 2 (as they were born with a caesarian section) to that list. 

Mother with child, village Riseri, Maniema Province, DRC (July 2015)

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Hands Free

Besides running, or rather, dragging myself up to the 8th floor to go back to my room (this altitude is killing me!) we didn't get much excercice during the 2 weeks course in Addis. Elevators are tricky, can't risk to be in a box like that when there is a powercut, which is quite often, hence my claustrophobia is resulting in an increased red blood cell count. 

Every night after classes we have been storming into a cosy local bar for a cold Ethiopian beer, right next to the hotel where we were staying (Bole area). We only needed some good old P-Square songs to get us dancing the daily research questions away: 'Personally' and 'Chop My Money' always works! It didn't matter that everyone was watching and laughing at our crazy moves, because it resulted in free shots (at least for the women) from the barman and a lesson in Ethiopian shoulder dislocation movements.

I think I was getting the hang of it, because when I now pass by the bar the guards are always smiling, showing some brown, but happy teeth. Yesterday he even stopped me and wanted to shake my hand. All of a sudden I froze and didn't know how to react. This kind man with twinkling eyes wanted to shake my hand, probably to congratulate me on my great dance moves, and the first thing I thought was: 'no, don't touch me, ebola is real!'

But I pulled myself together, took his both hands in mine and stood there for a good 2 minutes, enjoying the normal human friendly contact and smiling back, white and happy teeth. 

*thx Django

Addis Ababa, March 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Operational in Ethiopia

origin of mankind
origin of the Rastafari
never been colonized (although the man remind me of Italians)
intriguing traditional dances
different types of beer
delicious food
wonderful coffee
beautiful women (and men)
familiar churches


a crazy team with researchers originally from: Ethiopia, Italy, Belgium, Rwanda, Guinea, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Kenya, India, Bolivia.

Trying to finding the energy again to write scientifically about Ebola, but often drifting off to what has happened the last months and what is still happening in West-Africa.

All operational in Ethiopia.

Holy Trinity Church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (March 2015)