Magic happens beyond the comfort zone

BACHO (Banyabutumbi Cultural Heritage Organization) in Uganda is one of Sahaya International’s partner organizations, and takes care of many orphans. The children are organized as the “Lake Edward Cultural Performers” and entertain guests at many local and regional events with their lively music, dance and drama. PC: Akiikih Appolo, 2023
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Story and photos by Dr. Koen Van Rompay, Founder & Executive Director, Sahaya International, Inc.

Serendipity or Karma? Or a combination of both? What shaped Dr. Koen Van Rompay’s life

Koen is a veterinary doctor, originally from Belgium, who from childhood on, was always
interested in nature and animals, including healing them. In 1989, Koen moved from Belgium to
the USA, to pursue a PhD at the University of California, Davis. Since then, he has become a
renowned researcher on HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, and he has made major
contributions to the field of prevention and treatment. But for nearly 25 years, Koen has been
leading a double life.

Nearly 25 years after having started Sahaya International, Koen Van Rompay (right),
meets up in Uganda with Akiikih Appolo B. (left), the founder of the BACHO program that
partners closely with Sahaya International.
PC: Koen Van Rompay, 2023

In 1999, Koen founded Sahaya International, a 100% volunteer-run non-profit organization.
Sahaya International is, as he describes it, a network of friends of all backgrounds, who support
grassroots programs in developing countries with a variety of programs focused on empowering
underprivileged communities through education, socio-economic development, healthcare, and
conservation, with extra attention to the most vulnerable: orphans, people living with HIV or
disabilities. Starting Sahaya International was not something that was pre-planned. In fact, it
started through a series of coincidences.

Brother and sister in front of their house, in the rural village of Andimadam, South- India. The story of their parents is featured in the award-winning documentary “Sahaya Going Beyond”. PC: Josh Gibson, 2010

“In November1997, I traveled to Chennai (India) to attend an AIDS conference. Before the
conference started, I did a few days of sightseeing. I was very shocked to witness the poverty
that many people were suffering.”, Koen tells. “It evoked many emotions that were hard to deal
with. Especially being confronted with talented and innocent children who lack the basic level of
comfort, and who are given little respect and very few chances in life, it was often heart-breaking.
It made me realize how spoiled I was. Yet, I became frustrated with my inability to change this
injustice….because I am not a social worker, I am not a politician. I am just a veterinary doctor
and laboratory researcher. But I felt I could not take the easy path, by closing my eyes and
going back to the USA, and forgetting about it all. I had to do something. Just giving some
money or some food to a begging child is good and easy but a short-lasting band-aid, as it would
not provide any long term solution for that child. I felt that if I could change the life of one child
permanently, that would be worth it. But how would I go about it? I knew one thing: it’s better to
try and fail, then never to try at all.”

“Fortunately, during the AIDS conference, by chance at one of the tea breaks, I noticed
someone who also didn’t seem to know anyone else standing on the side of the room. We said
“hello, how are you” to each other. That was Selvam. That was the start of our friendship. Mr.
Selvam, a social worker, came from a remote rural village in southern India, where he had
started a small grassroots organization by the name of READ (Rural Education and Action
Development). Over the course of the conference, as we met during every break, I became
more and more impressed by the work he was trying to do to help the vulnerable in his
community, despite having very limited resources. When I asked him how he was trying to raise
some funds, he opened his backpack and showed me some beautifully embroidered greeting
cards that the women in his village were making. I was happily surprised, and felt that – yes, this
is something I can do, selling these cards to my friends and colleagues, or to people at the
Davis Farmer’s Market. So that’s how it all started, one dollar at a time. I sent the funds regularly
to Selvam, who kept me informed of the progress. That inspired me to go a step further, by
starting an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. We chose the name Sahaya International,
because “Sahaya” means “help” in Sanskrit.

Mountain gorilla silverback male from the Katwe family, relaxing in the forests of Bwindi
Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
PC: Kathy West, 2022

The humble beginnings of Sahaya International, and the initial programs in India, are also the
focus of the 2013 award-winning documentary, “Sahaya Going Beyond”, narrated pro bono by
Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons, which can viewed for free via

Fast forward, and now in 2024, Sahaya is approaching its 25th anniversary. Sahaya continues to
be fully volunteer-run in the USA, with Koen spending most of his free time and resources on it,
and with his living room as its headquarters. Because of all of this, the maximum amount of
donations can be sent overseas to have a direct impact and make a difference. The number of
programs has also expanded. Since its inception, Sahaya has channeled already more than 7
million dollars to various programs in India, Uganda, Kenya, Vietnam and the Philippines. Some
of the recent programs include ones that combine community development with conservation in
Uganda, such as the BACHO program that helps many orphans in Queen Elizabeth National
Park; this includes construction of dormitories and a kindergarten school that will help more than
100 children with getting a good jumpstart on education ( A 2nd program
in Uganda, the Rafiki Memorial Wildlife Conservation Initiative (named after a famous silverback
gorilla, Rafiki, who was killed by poachers in 2020) is located at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest,
home of the endangered mountain gorillas. In addition to helping the local community, this
program also operates a guesthouse adjacent to the forest, where tourists can stay, and has
started to purchase neighboring farmland for reforestation to increase the habitat of gorillas and
other wildlife. Gorillas have noticed this, as a few families are frequently spotted on the land
browsing on the fresh sprouts of vegetation. More info about this program can be found at

Students at the Mother Theresa School in India, run by READ and supported by Sahaya International, are excited to get ready for their dance performance during the inauguration of a second floor with classrooms. PC: Koen Van Rompay, 2015

When I asked Koen what Sahaya International’s success formula is, he explained that it’s the
ripple effect. Each of us has the power to make a difference, if we just dare to take one step at a
time. And when others see us do this work, they become inspired to join the efforts, or start
similar or new efforts in their own area or circle of friends. One of the take-home lessons of
Sahaya is:

An act of kindness inspires
be a drop that creates a ripple

Koen also explained that despite investing so much of his available free time and personal
resources into Sahaya, the returns are more than worth it. “In our modern world, society and the media try to brainwash us to believe that the success of one’s life is measured by the accumulation of fame and money. However, the continuous pursuit of fame, luxury and money can be such a source of stress, as one never feels satisfied. And it ends up becoming a waste of our precious limited time on this earth.

The Batwa tribe are forest pygmies, and as the original inhabitants of Bwindi
Impenetrable Forest, lived in coexistence with nature for millenia. But three decades ago, when
it became a National Park, they were evicted. Since then, they have been living at the margins of the park, in below-subsistence conditions, often trying to earn some money from performing for tourists or selling handicrafts. In order to give them better livelihood, Sahaya International
supports a Batwa farming project and provides educational scholarships to their children via
their local partner, the Rafiki Memorial Wildlife Conservation Initiative.
PC: Koen Van Rompay, 2021

Instead, through Sahaya, I have learned that as long as one has a basic level of comfort – a place to live, access to food, education, and health – the rest above it does not buy more happiness. Instead, it is
meaningful friendships and relationships that bring inner happiness. I am fortunate to have befriended many amazing people across the world, who enrich my life. Thanks to modern technology (social media, Whatsapp), it is very easy to be connected and share personal stories. Members of our large Sahaya family find happiness in helping others reach their basic level of comfort, in supporting children to build a much better future. We welcome anyone to join hands with us.”

To learn more about Sahaya International, visit To contact Koen, who is also
available for speaking engagements, contact him at ko**@sa****.org"> ko**@sa****.org


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