German Ambassador Extraordinary: Rudiger Lemp

Features Issue 21 Aug, 2010
Text by Sujal Jane Dunipace / Photo: ECS Media

He is German Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, His Excellency Mr. Wolf Rüdiger Georg Lemp - otherwise known as Rudi, the mountain biker.

This down-to-earth diplomat was granted his request to be posted to Nepal in November 2000. He had visited Nepal first in 1974, trekking in Helambu, and fell in love with the place.  Yet his career journey took many interesting twists and turns before he reached the particular peak of German Ambassador to Nepal.

Rudi Lemp comes from a family of doctors, but shifted his own studies from medicine to earning a Master’s degree in economics, not knowing what path he would take. Through his sister, who had contacts with the German diplomatic corps in France, Rudi became interested in the possibilities of international work. He passed the diplomatic service tests with little effort. He explains, “If you don’t want it too badly, its easier.” And so he plunged into his new life.

His first posting was in Dublin, Ireland in 1971, a training position to develop language skills and understand European Embassy systems. After completing his training in Germany, he was posted in Saigon, South Vietnam in 1972, just before the ceasefire established in the Paris Agreement.  It was a fascinating time to be in Vietnam, at the end of one of the defining wars of the century.  He left two months before the fall of Saigon. He says, “Later it was a very useful line to use when they wanted to withdraw me from a post I didn’t want to leave- ‘Remember what happened to Saigon?!’”

In 1975, Rudi was appointed German delegate to several United Nations committees in New York. This job resulted in a recurring theme in his work and contact with the woman who became his wife- Dr. Azra Habib, an Indian pathologist trained in the U.S. Over the years, he had several stints with the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, Switzerland, and still maintains a house in New York with his wife.

Interspersed with the UN assignments, Rudi served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Amman, Jordan in the 1980s and in Ottawa, Canada in the 1990s.  He felt particularly enriched by his time in Jordan. He reflects, “We all have preconceived ideas about Arabs and the Arab world. I found the people of Jordan totally friendly, no xenophobia. King Hussein was very gracious, accessible, quite uncomplicated to work with. It’s a beautiful country.  We really had a fantastic time.” The former Deputy Chief also appreciated the opportunity to travel both in Jordan and throughout the ‘Holy Land’, and naturally learned a great deal about the Middle East conflicts.  

It was sad to leave Jordan, but his next job had Rudi playing a role in resolving longstanding tensions in his own part of the world. He was Deputy Director of the International Environment Policy group of the Foreign Office in Bonn.  He relates, “This work on environmental issues played a big role in loosening up the eastern bloc. The environmental issues were less political than humanitarian and human rights issues.  The east had been convinced by their own propaganda that they were better, but they saw this one area that wasn’t so good….[and] they were interested in western technology, and co-operation [on the environment].” Among other projects, the group worked out a multi-national convention on protection of the Danube River. “It was a lot of work, but really satisfying,” reports Ambassador Lemp.  And he feels that the initial cooperation on environmental issues paved the way for East and West Germans to work successfully on many other issues.

In Nepal
When his time in Ottawa was drawing to a close, Rudi learned of the ambassador position opening in Nepal and applied for it.  He explained that in addition to his strong personal connection to Nepal, “it makes more sense for my wife and my family. This is her part of the world; her mother tongue is Urdu, and she knows Hindi, so she can make herself understood and picks up Nepali easily. And our daughters love it here too.”

When he arrived in Nepal, he told friends, “After serving so long in positions with a boss telling you what to do, its exhilarating to find yourself in charge.” One friend quipped, “Isn’t your wife coming too?” Rudi and Azra are very much partners in life, and Rudi is aware of the sacrifices his wife has made for his career.  “It sounds like a doctor can work anywhere, but its really not practical.” For example, Canada didn’t recognize Azra’s U.S. medical board exams, and she would have had to take a full year to qualify to practice medicine there.

Ambassador Lemp also likes working in Nepal because he says the Nepali officials are very welcoming and open (“although they do feel that we come and go too frequently”) and the diplomatic corps here is small and intimate.  “The relationships are cordial here, and friendships develop because of the closeness.” He even goes mountain biking with one of his colleagues in the American Embassy.

The work itself is both challenging and satisfying. Rudi observes, “What’s bad about Nepal makes it interesting for an ambassador. Things are kind of unpredictable; think of all the changes that have happened in the past [two] years, starting with the royal massacre.  I wouldn’t say that I like this of course, but it is more challenging.” One of the most enjoyable parts of the job for Rudi is being able to do development and technical assistance work. The German Development Corporation (GTZ) works closely with the German Embassy on many projects, including city and business development and hydro-electric plants.  “It would be nice to have GTZ under the same roof” as the embassy, remarks Rudi, but at present this is not practical.

Through his work at the Embassy, Rudi is involved with and/or oversees many important services for Germans, Nepalis, and others.  “We look after people who get into accidents and legal problems.  And we help extend visas even for other countries that don’t have embassies here, like Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands.”  He notes that there have been many changes in tourism over the years. One phenomena is that the average age of tourists is going up.  Rudi explains that this has increased the rate of accidents. Older people “are often in good shape, but they sometimes overestimate their abilities,” he elaborates.

The number of German tourists, like the overall number of tourists, has declined. “We used to have around 40,000 tourists a year; now it’s about 15,000.”  Rudi sees this decline as significant not only for the tourist economy, but for the well being of Nepal in general. “Many people-to-people contacts started originally through tourism, and there are NGOs where people come every year and bring a bit of money or help out in other ways. It is a pity to see the numbers [of tourists] dwindling from that angle; it means fewer contacts.”

The flip side of helping tourists in Nepal is assisting Nepalis who want to go to Germany.  The German Embassy helps Nepali students connect with organizations that provide scholarships and other assistance to attend universities in Germany, and processes several thousand requests for visas each year. Rudi explains, “We have to look into all of them. We get all kinds of cases, from genuine travelers with projects in Germany to people operating with false passports. With the economic pressure and high unemployment, there are many people who just want to get away and find their luck elsewhere. It’s a difficult situation.”

As Ambassador, Rudi Lemp collaborates with other “Heads of Mission” (leaders of other Embassies and Consulates) as well as with various German and Nepali organizations cooperating on education, cultural, and development projects.

 “On most important issues, the Heads of Mission of the EU [European Union] try to find a common line,” the Ambassador explains.  They also produce joint reports on issues of international concern, such as the Bhutanese refugees. Rudi Lemp does not keep a ‘professional distance’ from such humanitarian issues, but really takes them to heart. “I’m concerned about the people in the camps,” he says earnestly, “this can’t go on forever. We hope there will be genuine repatriation, not just token repatriation.”

On the cultural/educational/development front, Rudi and the Embassy are not only involved with GTZ, but also student associations such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Humboldt Institute, the Goethe Zentrum for German Culture (the German government funded the Goethe Institute until 1997, but budget cuts forced it’s closure; the current center is run by Nepalis), and the Heidelberg South Asian Institute and Nepal Research Center, both of which involve Germans and Nepalis in research and preservation of Nepali/South Asian culture. For example, the Nepal Research Center has been working with Nepal’s National Archives to preserve historical documents on microfilm.  These will then be catalogued and made more accessible to scholars, eventually even becoming available by e-mail.

Roller-blading vs. Mountain Biking
The life of an ambassador is not all serious decisions, meetings, administration, and hob-nobbing.  His Excellency has been trying out roller blading recently, and photos of him in full gear have graced the pages of both this magazine (the May issue featured one of him rolling up to the podium to inaugurate the 3rd Annual Kathmandu Beetle Rally) and the Kathmandu Post. But Rudi is eager to clarify: “Roller blading is not my main sport. That photo in the Kathmandu Post was after the work day, when I had ventured out in the evening.”  Actually, he does try to keep one day a week free from ambassadorly responsibilities so he can engage in his true passion, which is mountain-biking. He elaborates, “Sitting in the heart of Kathmandu, you can feel cramped up, but the surroundings in the Valley are still untouched, very beautiful.  I am still discovering new trails after three years.” Among his favorites are Shivapuri Forest Road and a trail from Pulchoki to Bhaktapur, which he describes as “single track, with a few stretches where you have to carry the bike, and the mountain views are often breath-taking. About halfway, there is a restaurant on a nice terrace where you can stop and look down on the Kathmandu Valley, see the Himalayas, and even watch a small plane fly below your level.” He slyly adds that there are also “secret trails that I’m not going to reveal.” Even though he is protective of these lesser-trodden by-ways, he is also pleased that the sport is slowly growing here as young Nepalis take to the bike to explore the mountain terrain and their own heritage.  

Moving On
Rudi Lemp says that “Despite the difficult situation here, I am very happy as Ambassador.”  However, his time here is probably drawing to a close next year, as four years is the typical length of a German Embassy posting.  The reason behind this length is that some positions are considered desirable or undesirable, and embassy personnel are expected to both share the opportunities and take turns shouldering the burdens of international diplomacy.  Ambassador Lemp says that he considers his current post desirable and thinks there will be no difficulty finding his replacement when the time comes.  But Rudi, you will be missed.