« back to home

Meet with the new member of the Centre: Karen Van der Veken

July 31, 2015

Karen in Sierra Leone, January' 2014.
Karen in Sierra Leone, January’ 2014

At 6 years old I would dress up as a doctor or nurse (actually it was more of a hybrid form, a Fur medical assistant profile) and manage the district’s health center, serving approximately 7535 beneficiaries, mostly small fish, lost baby ducks, one elder and one younger brother, butterflies, and some dolls with phantom pains after amputation traumas. After a “North-South” workshop in second grade of primary school, I subscribed to the magazine of ABOS (an ancient form of the DGD, in an era when “Switching the Poles” was an astronomic rather than a political concept). By the time I was 9, I had a cut-and-paste file with pictures and text on severe acute malnourished children, one on malaria and one on HIV. When asked what to “become” when I would be grown up, my answer changed only once from “working with Doctors without Borders in Africa” to “war journalist”. Eventually I’ve done neither one of those. After a highly interesting detour – which I no longer consider as such – in international political sciences, I worked in the social and educational field for a couple of years before to take on midwifery studies. The ITM postgraduate in tropical medicine barely digested, I left for the field with Médecins du Monde in both medical and coordination roles, and for many years my home was where I hang my hat. Well, it still is, I suppose. A friend and former colleague used to say that “in the ugliest places of the world, you’ll find the most beautiful people”, referring to the often cruel day-to-day of the conflict and social settings in the countries where we got to work (Pakistan, Somali region (Ethiopia), Darfur, DRC, Haiti…) which was in sharp contrast with the stunning natural beauty and in great (though tender) contradiction with the many friends we encountered among the people we worked and lived with.

Since the end of 2012, after about 7 years of never ending field work, I’ve been based in Belgium, trying to contribute to a constructive change in the maternal and reproductive health realities from another perspective: I’ve given some technical and program support to NGOs, have been teaching on SRH topics (midwifery college / ITM) and provided in 2013 a first input to the research and evaluation projects of the Maternal and Reproductive Health Unit (MRHU) of the ITM, which has again become my professional habitat since July 2015. After a field mission last year, one that was highly exemplary for the need for change in the humanitarian “business”, I took some time to reflect while focusing on an additional master in Management and Policy of Health Care. Yes, it is possible to be as ridiculously interested by the physical / medical aspects of public health issues as by the politics behind it. No, I’m not ready to choose between the action in the field and the reflections underlying the intervention. That’s what makes working with like-minded colleagues and students of the ITM so interesting. Hence it is most likely that I’ll be happily investing most of the coming 507,5 days in the coordination of the SRH network (trying to “switch the poles”), in technical support to the bilateral DGD-Morocco agreement, in drafting my first publishable articles (at least, that’s what I more or less promised to my highly devoted chief) or in other research projects run by the Maternal and Reproductive Health Unit. Except for those days on which my personal MRHU has drained the available energy and those on which I’ll be consequently reloading my batteries on the bike, on the water, in the hills (mountains if available) or simply in my tent in the back yard.

-Karen Van der Veken