Amazing Organizations We Experienced

Text by Dick Simon

We visited with and learned about NGO and social enterprise organizations doing amazing work. Explore their websites and see the differences they are making in the world.

Akilah Institute for Women – Kigali Rwanda – Akilah is the first women’s college in Rwanda and offers a 3-year Business Diploma with majors in Entrepreneurship, Hospitality Management and Information Systems. 97% of Akilah students are the first in their family to attend higher education. Akilah seeks to “build future generations of women leaders and professionals in East Africa” by connecting its graduates directly to the workforce.” Founded and led by Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes (Elizabeth@akilahinstitute.org).

ASYV (Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village) – Rwanda – ASYV is a magical village less than two hours from Kigali for orphans of the genocide in a boarding school environment with top teachers, world-class facilities and emotional support. ASYV’s mission is to “enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills.” Founded by Anne Heyman (anne@asyv.org)

Dakshana – Dakshana – Kottayam, Kerala, India and 5 other locations throughout the country – provides an intensive, final two years of secondary school for economically disadvantaged, extremely bright youth with high potential from rural villages to prepare them for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance exams, completely changing their potential life course. Dakshana’s mission “is to focus on investing in the delivery of world-class education opportunities for exceptionally gifted children from impoverished rural backgrounds in India.” We spent time with CEO, Colonel Ram Sharma (rsharma@dakshana.org), and founder and major funder Mohnish Pabrai (mpabrai@pabraifunds.com) is an amazing individual and friend.

Free the Children (FTC) – Udiapur, India with development programs in China, Ecuador, Haiti, Kenya, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka, as well as empowering youth in North America and the UK.  FTC is the largest network in the world of children helping children through education, health, clean water & sanitation, agriculture & food security, and alternative income generation. Their Adopt-a-Village model has been cited as one of the best in the world for lifting people out of poverty and addressing the Millennium Development goals. It was an inspiration and pleasure spending time with Scott Lloyd Hanoman (lloyd@freethechildren.org) who runs India for FTC or contact Executive Director Scott Baker (scott@freethechildren.org).  I am honored to be on FTC’s Board for the last 5 years, and to know and have the opportunity to work with the amazing Founders, Marc and Craig Kielburger.

Gardens for Health International (GHI) – Kigali, Rwanda – “Provides lasting agricultural solutions to the problem of chronic childhood malnutrition.” GHI partners “with rural health clinics to equip families facing malnutrition with seeds, livestock, and know-how for greater self-sufficiency.” Their investment has enabled over one thousand farmers to “have the resources to feed themselves and their families in dignity.” GHI’s founder is Julie Carney (Julie@gardensforhealth.org).

Ikirezi Natural Products – Kigali, Rwanda – This fantastic social enterprise creates jobs and economic vitality through sustainable and organic essential oil production utilizing Fair Trade principles. Ikirezi “partners with small farmers in Rwanda to harvest plant leaves for essential oil production. Ikirezi primarily works with widows and orphans in a holistic effort to resort their dignity, improve their livelihoods, and rebuild their communities.” Nicholas Hitimana (nicholas@ikirezi.com) runs the company and we were introduced through his partner and fellow YPOer Dennis Overton (dennis.overton@aquascot.com).

Project Healthy Children (PHC) – Kigali, Rwanda, as well as Burundi, Honduras, Malawi, Mali and Nepal. PHC works with the governments to develop micronutrient fortification requirements, strategies, standards and programs to address, on a very cost effective national scale, the effects of devastating micronutrient malnutrition. As a small nonprofit, PHC “assists government and industry in designing and implementing countrywide, market-based, mandatory food fortification programs.” Contact David Dodson (ddodson@projecthealthychildren.org). I am honored to have served on PHC’s Board.

Reality Tours (Global Exchange) – Mumbai, India – Global Exchange “is an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world.” As an “education and action resource center, Global Exchange seeks to “empower locally and connect globally to create a just and sustainable world.” Reality Tours offers “experiential educational tours, connecting people to issues, issues to movements, and movements to social change.” Reality Tours gave us fascinating and inspirational insights into Dharavi, featured in Slum Dog Millionaire, presenting to us a real behind the scenes look at the incredible people and economic enterprises active there. Every visitor to Mumbai should experience Reality Tours.  Contact Alessandro Isola in the Reality Tours Department.  Alessandro@globalexchange.org

Rwanda Genocide Memorial and Museum – Kigali, Rwanda –Stands as a living memorial to the million Rwandan Tutu genocide victims slaughtered over a 100 day period, honoring their memory and providing current awareness and education to ensure that horrific events like this never occur again. “The Centre in Kigali was created by a joint partnership of the Kigali City Council and the UK-based Aegis Trust. It contains a permanent exhibition of the Rwandan genocide and an exhibition of other genocides around the world.” Built on a site containing the graves of over 250,000 Rwandan victims, it serves as “a clear reminder of the cost of ignorance.” Honore Gatera is the amazing Manager for Kigali Genocide Memorial. (honore.gatera@gmail.com).

Uthando – Cape Town, South Africa – Uthando creates a bridge between visitors to Cape Town who seek to learn more about the Townships and make a difference, and inspiring community based organizations. Director James Fernie (jamesfernie@uthandosa.org) leads Uthando South Africa, “a unique and innovative nonprofit and fair trade in tourism accredited company, with the aim of raising funds and other forms of assistance for community development projects in South Africa.” Every visitor to Cape Town should experience Uthando and the incredible organizations it is allied with.

Video Volunteers (VV) – India – VV “envisions a world in which all disadvantaged communities have their own locally relevant and locally produced media that celebrates their culture, voices grassroots concerns, and stimulates dialogue to find solutions to endemic problems.” VV acts to empower the poorest citizens of the world to become “players in the global media revolution” by providing “disadvantaged communities with the journalistic, critical thinking and creative skills they need.” Jessica Mayberry’s (info@videovolunteers.org) Video Volunteers “train marginalized communities to produce news, watch it, take action and devise solutions.”

WasteLess – India– This non-profit social enterprise has developed Garbology 101, an “interactive, interdisciplinary, multi-age educational kit for children from 6 to 12 years of age, providing a unique perspective on waste and its responsible management.” Garbology 101 provides the children of today the information on waste management they need to make informed decisions for tomorrow, using a “participatory approach with a high level of involvement from teachers and students.” Founder Ribhu Vohra continues his work on effective waste management, working to make this waste education a worldwide habit.

Women For Women International (WfWI)– Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan – Women for Women International “provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.” This work helps “women go from victim to survivor to active citizen and provides financial aid, job training, rights awareness and leadership education.” Antonina Kayitesi (akayitesi@womenforwomen.org) operations in Rwanda, an office we had an opportunity to visit and learn about their work in the socio-economic transformation of Rwandan Women, truly changing the world one life at a time.

YPO/WPO Social Enterprise Network (SEN) – The SEN Summit in Chennai, India was an initiative of SEN Ambassadors, business leaders around the world, celebrating the spirit of ten outstanding Indian social entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas and commitment to solve specific social issues close to their hearts.  This amazing conference was the brainchild and very hard work of JK Jhaver.

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Top Experiences List

Text and Images by Dick Simon

Most of the writings about our experiences have been from Patty, who has been GREAT at being prolific and sharing.  I have been busily photographing, and those images are used in conjunction with her writings throughout the blog.

I love to reflect back on a trip or experience by thinking about the Top Experiences.

For me the overall best was spending the special times with Alex, Ben and Patty in Africa, and Patty throughout this journey (and sharing all of this with her, including helping with her collecting discarded bottle cap project).


In terms of specifics, my highlights would include:

JP sharing his deeply personal genocide experiences, and helping us imagine the unimaginable.  In Kibuye, Rwanda we walked through the market in his village, realizing that many of the ‘nice’ merchants has been directly involved in slaughtering their friends and family; and seeing his home and the houses of the neighbors still living there, who had murdered his family. This surrealistic scene also hit me at a soccer game the first night in Kigali – ‘normal’ people cheering their teams – how did they become mass murderers?


Gorillas – Being face to face with these massive ‘cousins’ in the wild in Rwanda is definitely a top life experience.


Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India– Being in the midst of millions of Pilgrims coming from all over India, and thousands of Sadhus, or wise men, the first night photographing everybody walking around in a cloud of DDT, the 2am bathing day wanderings with the Sagers and being swarmed by hundreds of naked, ash covered Nagas racing in a stoned frenzy to the river.


Ulagalla Resort – The ultimate Peace Dividend in Sri Lanka –developed immediately after the war, the only Sri Lankan hotel included in a TripAdvisor Top Ten list, and for us coming at the perfect time when we needed a break. We took walks, did bicycle explorations, watched fisherman at sunset and took a morning kayak to see and photograph birds, and spent 3 days of eating our Anniversary cake, which we first got at a magical anniversary dinner on their Observation Deck.


Spending time with the Maharana of Udaipur, India in his amazing palace to brainstorm ways of working together to improve lives in that region of Rajasthan, which his family has been Custodian of the region through over 70 generations and 1400 years.

Really joining celebrations – There is something about being a foreigner with a camera which I experience as license to be in the middle of everything going on, rather than a well behaved bystander – being the only white face in the Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) parade and celebration in Cape Town, and being invited to climb onto the parade floats with the most esteemed Hindu Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela procession (our guide said people did good deeds for a lifetime to achieve that honor – ignorance is bliss!)

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In greater Kruger National Park, South Africa – coming upon a pride of resting lions at night, who gave blood curdling roars.  (I know that for some inexplicable reason we were ‘safe’ from these apex predators in our open sided jeep, but really…)


The slow pace of traveling by houseboat in the Backwaters of Kerala.

Mumbai-with its overall intensity and contrasts, from arriving to Suki’s Protocol Officer and a sumptuous dinner in his amazing home and another with YPOers leading many of India’s major companies, to touring the slums and largest open laundry in the world, and the magnificent Hotel Oberoi as our oasis from the frenzy.

In Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, heart of Tamil Tigers during the war, befriending the officer sent to check out and potentially punish us for taking photos.  Once he became convinced we were not with an NGO there to embarrass the government, we became buddies and I took our picture together!

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Watching groups of monkeys diving from the trees into the lake at Cinnamon Lodge – I never knew they could swim!


YPO SEN Summit in Chennai and the synchronicity of the timing working out perfectly to participate with this fantastic group of business leaders and social entrepreneurs.

In a more general sense,

I love the serendipitous encounters made possible by creating space and time in travels – fisherman, watching crocodile in the ocean, happening upon the Tsunami photographic museum in Sri Lanka.

I love how photography gives me purpose and connection to what is going on around me, and really helps me ‘see’.  While I am not fond of long days in the car getting from point A to Point B, Patty has helped me see that as a movie unfolding outside our vehicle, and I have been working on a Through the Windshield photo project.

I love the fascinating people we randomly met, including Japanese photographer Dan Honda who taught me the good thing about Leica’s ‘unusefulness’ and reminded me to take long walks and shoot closer.

I love the continual learning about the world and about complexities – Does post-conflict really exist? Is the conflict over with ongoing random killings of Tutsis (Rwanda), racial strife (South Africa) and soldiers (Sri Lanka)? What was and is India’s involvement in the Sri Lanka conflict?

I love the flow of travel – multiple experiences constantly juxtaposed on each other, with a pace, intensity and stimulation on all dimensions which I rarely experience in other environments.


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The Pygmies – The Tua

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


We travel down a bumpy, muddy clay road going through smaller and poorer villages until we see a barefoot woman sitting outside of a mud and clay hut, making a pot. The Tua (or pygmies) comprise only 1% of Rwanda’s population. They are the poorest in the country and JP told us they will want money. This is such a dilemma in traveling.

We do not encourage “begging”. JP once told us when boys were asking for money that if we gave them something, it would not only encourage more “asking”. They would quit going to school. He said little children show off their cute smile and get coins but as they grow up, their cuteness wears off and their only recourse is to turn to stealing. They end up in prison. JP told a great story about when he found one of these boys. He coaxed and threatened and even fed him breakfast everyday to get him to school. The boy is now finishing secondary school and has a scholarship for college!

So, back to the Tua. I use my IPhone to video the pot making. Hand built. They use the broken bottom of a round fired pot to turn the clay. No fancy wheel. As I video all the children start watching the camera as if it is a movie and all they need is popcorn. Once they figure out they are on film, the kids create a choir and the young women begin to chant and dance. They get Alex and me to dance and JP starts taking our picture. Quite funny! By the time we finish, we have attracted a huge group all expecting a “gift”. What to do? JP suggests giving to the head of village so he presents $50 USD – a small fortune! They cheer, and then bicker. Will there be a fight? Uh oh! What have we done? JP gets out of car and sets them all straight. Ah, a happy ending… We think!

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Leaving Rwanda – well, almost

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


I woke up this morning sad to leave Rwanda. Sad for many reasons. I have been reading Philip Gourevitch’s book about the genocide. In it was yet another horrific description of barbaric behavior – using machetes the “genocedaires” would chop off each foot, each arm just to watch the suffering of the Tutsi. Think about Dian Fossey’s favorite gorilla named “Digit”. He suffered the exact same fate from the poachers. I put that fact together as I was laying in bed. I believe the gorillas have fared well with its $18 million revenue brought in by 25,000 visitors each year. I wonder if the Tutsi’s have done as well. I believe they have because of Kagame’s leadership and pragmatism. I read that Kagame was a Rwandan refugee in Uganda since the age of four so his wish was a sense of belonging for every person in Rwanda.

So my sadness around the genocide will always be a part of me. Today we visited JP’s family where I learned that his wife went back to her hometown to be with her parents only to have them murdered. She ran and hid in the forest for months. These families all carry so much loss… too much sadness hangs in the air like the mists hanging around the volcanoes.

I am sad to leave this landscape and its people. Ah, the countryside. Everyone is outside. Everyone is going somewhere. Everyone is carrying something – a baby on their back, a load of firewood on a child’s head, a mattress, a sack of potatoes, a plastic bowl of pineapples, a yellow water jug, and a hoe balanced just so. Most walk for hours long distances and others who have a source of income bicycle, take a motorcycle taxi or public buses. The men shake hands and the women shyly smile. The country is spotless because two years ago they banned plastic bags. Now they just need to work on car pollution. The politeness is impeccable. The “muzungu” (white person) curiosity everywhere. There is a mix of blue jeans and kanga cloth.

Rwanda is a tiny jewel of Africa with great leadership. If the hate can disappear then it will have a bright future.

I must end with another quote by JP, “My generation has to die of old age before we can be rid of the memories of murder.”

Oh, “the almost”? We made a huge mistake not confirming our flights. As punishment, we get to airport only to find out the flight doesn’t exist. The next flight is tonight at 1 am! Ugh! But we had a great day!


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Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


Our guide for the gorilla trek, Frances, tells us we will be visiting the Amohoro group of 18 (which means ‘peace’ – befitting Rwanda’s thinking for its future).  The largest gorilla group, called Susa, has 35 members. There are 10 habituated groups and 4 or 5 others. The park divides visitors into groups of 8 people. We trekked with a Canadian, Australian and a Brazilian couple. To get to the trailhead, we have a 4-wheeler that goes on the worst rocky road ever with villagers everyday watching the rich parade up the volcanoes. There are 25,000 visitors a year @ $750 per person for permits. This is not counting paying porters and tips for guides and hotels, drivers, food and buying handicrafts. One has to feel good about this because it supports the economy, protects the gorillas and proves that Dian Fossey’s work and murder was not in vain. There has been no poaching for ten years.

After bumping along, we arrive at the start and hire 2 porters dressed in blue jumpsuits. They very politely introduce themselves. In true ‘You are Loved’ form, my porter is named Valentine. He was so very sweet, holding my hand on the steep ups and downs! We are given a well-worn walking stick and start!

We begin by going through fields of daisies used to make pyrethrum insect repellant. It was heavenly. Potato blossoms and children yelling “hello, hello”!

We are joined by 3 guards with guns to protect us from buffalo and the occasional elephant. But the real threats are not animal but vegetable… stinging nettles taller than me and giant thistle (along with bamboo) are the favorite foods of the gorillas. We climb for 2 hours. Our guide stops, tells us we are here, leave backpacks and get out our cameras. The first one appears. I am so overwhelmed by this experience, I start crying. To see this giant, healthy and happy, in its true environment and not trapped in a cement cage behind bars is quite stunning. Funny enough – I find myself not scared at all. They ignore us. I shot a lot of video. What did we see! A silverback pushing a tree trunk toward us to show who is boss.  A mother and tiny baby frolicking in the grass. Juveniles doing the monkey thing – swinging from branch to branch. The best was a huge male and female climbing and totally debarking a tree (for lunch!)

We were 5 feet away… Just watching for the allotted one magic hour! And like Cinderella, it was over! As we were going down, a guide asked “Are you satisfied”? I answered, “A thousand times yes!!!” These gorillas represented all that is possible… Especially in contrast to the rest of Rwanda’s past.


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Finding The Monkeys

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


Nyungwe Lodge is literally plopped in the middle of a tea plantation. Early morning brings the pickers, wearing pieces of plastic used as an apron, plucking handfuls of the youngest light green leaves from the top of each plant. The young men and women throw the leaves behind into a woven basket. Sometimes the bottoms of the baskets are worn out and patched with red or green plastic netting.

We see all this as we are eating French toast with honey and fresh banana, and of course, Rwandan black tea!

We arrange to go see the Colobus monkey – shiny black with whiskers of white fur around the face and running down each arm. They have long tails that are used for balance, not to hang from branches. They never drink water… only eat leaves.

The babies were adorable – miniatures of their parents. The newborns are all white and cling to their mothers for dear life. The families spend their time eating and playing with each other, which sometimes lead to skirmishes of bared teeth. Eventually they swing from tree to tree to move on. (If the young are too small to swing through the canopy, they jump to the ground and quickly run to the next grove of trees.)

We watch for hours as if it is just another lazy afternoon laying in the tea fields with a women trekker nearby. It is one of those magic moments of travel. Not moving, just “being” with the landscape and what it has to offer… in this case, beautiful Colobus monkeys.

We get close and watch a juvenile pick leaves and chew them up. Sometimes they stare at us and give us a photo opportunity and sometimes they all have their backs to us. What must they think of us?

After getting a great view of the white baby with its mother and seeing eye-to-eye through binoculars, we head back to the lodge for a beautiful lunch. I take a swim in the infinity pool set next to the forest and then join the family to watch  “Gorillas in the Mist” – preparing for what everyone says is the highlight of our time in Rwanda.

Merry Christmas to All from Rwanda!

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Kamembe – Nyungwe Lodge

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


Four minutes to the Congo. Armed, camouflaged guards at every block. A young pilot from US working for Doctors Without Borders was on our plane. He is in Democratic Republic of Congo where he said 10,000 foreign troops are stationed. JP lived there going to school for many years and said the country is in chaos and corruption.

We arrive to a dream of a place. Beautiful, very well run and perfect for Christmas!


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Learning About The Genocide

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


“How can I ever Forgive? Really, it is absurd and anyone who says they can forgive is not being truthful to himself!” said by our guide and now friend, JP, after spending many days with him visiting the place he was shot, hid for almost 3 months, where his father was murdered, where they found his bones, the house the rest of his family died in, the church in town where 11,000 were killed with the blessing of the priest and the group grave where we paid our respects.

I just finished reading “Running the Rift” by Naomi Benaron – a novel that depicts this period of history. We had dinner with the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Center and I was able to fact check what I was reading and found it was true down to every detail. I am now reading “We wish to inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families” by Philip Gourevitch.

As I drive through the countryside or go to a market, I wonder “who did what?” I imagine myself driving at night and being pulled over by my neighbors and friends – the very people I knew all my life and suddenly feeling the machete. Death! Instant… Wiping out my ‘belonging’ to this very country I thought I was a part of. I became a “cockroach” – a hated creature to be slaughtered.

I view myself as someone who can relate to suffering and offer understanding and support. In this country I have met my match! I have asked a thousand whys??? I keep reading about the history, the reasons written, and just like the Holocaust, I cannot relate to the horrific, senseless, violent, overwhelming action of genocide… a systematic plan to kill a “group” of men, women, and children. I told JP it is just too BIG- unthinkable. A human being is not made to process that much death, that much trauma, that much loss, so quickly.

And, so, as optimistic as a I am, as much as I believe in my own Project – “You are Loved – Pass It On”, how can I look JP in his eyes and not agree with him. This kind of murder with intent and ignorance seems unforgivable.

Life does go on! JP says, “I cannot put this aside, I must carry the loss and sorrow always with me… If I see my father’s murderer in the street and he greets me, I simply tell him to go away. I am not your friend or forgiver. Stay away from me as I might hurt you. I do not want to be a killer like you. I have my future and my wife and children.”

All of this talk of the genocide is the unspoken underbelly of the country. President Kagame has outlawed the distinguishing of Hutu and Tutsi and people do not speak of 1994. That is why it was so wonderful to have the opportunity to learn from JP. Rwandans are moving on with “living” – building, educating, and developing. Kigali is clean and modern and bustling!


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Leaving Home

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Boston to Rwanda


First, I want to explain what you probably will be reading. This will not be a travelogue. What I like to write are essays about concepts, put-togethers, serendipitous moments which help me explain to myself why I’m the lucky one – why I get to travel all over the world. Why me?

It started a few days before the trip began.  The tragic massacre of 27 innocent children and educators in Newtown, Connecticut at Shady Hill Elementary School took place.  The news of all those senseless murders broke my heart. I couldn’t shake it. The suffering of the victims and families was almost too much to bear. How does one’s heart ever recover? I believe this incident was the beginning of trying to understand senseless murder. Newtown would connect me to Rwanda – home of it’s own horrific, useless genocide where over one million died within a three month period.

Laying in bed feeling lousy with a stomach bug put me in a sullen mood and gave me space to think about the suffering in Newtown. It was as if this place led me to where I was going – to a land where I would witness a country trying to move forward from inexplicable hate and violence and loss just like Newtown will eventually do. We are going to be met in Kigali by JP who was featured in the documentary “Earth Made of Glass”, after losing 7 siblings and parents in the genocide. He was almost killed and then hid in a septic tank for two and a half months. His journey in the film is searching for the painful truth of what happened to his father.

So, I got on the plane and sat quietly weeping for Newtown and Rwanda. You see, I seem to understand suffering of others and try to help those who are dealing with pain and loss. Unfortunately, in this life, one cannot have joy or love without the opposite.

Which leads me to another story about suffering.

Dick and I had the good fortune to witness the Dalai Lama at MIT in Boston.

Dick was suffering from a kidney stone so it was quite the undertaking getting him to the venue. By the time I had parked the car, all the seats were taken and there was a moment of panic when I thought there was no place for me. We finally get settled. As I stared at the lavishly decorated stage where the Dalai Lama would be in just a few moments, I was suddenly overtaken by a deep sadness. Tears rolled down my face. Dick asked me what was wrong. I had no explanation. As I set there in a puddle of emotion, I felt as if all the suffering I carried and all the suffering I witnessed in the world finally found a home. I sat there allowing it a space. I felt, just like on the plane to Rwanda, that this was my purpose. As proof, when the Dalai Lama spoke to all of us in English, I could not understand a word he said. It was like the Tower of Babel.  It was as if my purpose with him had already happened.