Interview with Gereon Wagener

Features Issue 46 Aug, 2010
Text by Anita Lama / Photo: ECS Media

Gereon Wagener, a business consultant and sales trainer, took time off from his lucrative job in 1997, to reflect on his life. A life in business based entirely on monetary success and personal gain no longer made any sense to him. Contemplating on where he was headed, led him to discover a new meaning in his life, by supporting the fight against the scourge of girl trafficking. In 1997, he set up the support network “Help for Maiti Nepal” in his homeland Germany, which later tied up with BONO Direct Aid Association. While on his crusade, he came across various support organizations, private foundations and generous donors whom he could convince to support the cause. BONO Direct Aid Association supports Maiti Nepal and Nepal Matri Griha along with several other small projects. Living mostly in Nepal for the past seven years, Wagener has made a massive contribution to the need here, by bringing in funds for building a protection and rehabilitation center, clinic, hospice, schools, a therapy center and several other awareness and medication projects. For him, it all started with changing his own life and in the process he has changed and saved the lives of many. His zeal, drive, dedication and enthusiasm in working for what he strongly believes in, comes out strongly as he talks to Anita Lama.

At what point did you decide to change the course of your life and why?
In September 1996, I had more than 20 training days. Every night, I stayed in a different hotel and hardly had any time for myself. This was when I first started to ask myself, if I was leading my life or others led my life; like my company, clients, calendars or my watch. In October 1996, as expected, my company gave me a time planner for 1997, and also for 1998. With dates booked two years in advance, it seemed I had to plan my life accordingly. I realized that this was no longer my life and that I had to change something. After many requests, I finally managed to get a half year unpaid leave. After that, I never went back to that job and to social security.

What brought you to Nepal?
The sea and the mountains have always attracted me and I had heard how wonderful the Himalayas were. After my intense business life, I was longing for the silence and remoteness of the mountains. Like most tourists, I first stayed in Thamel, but did not like it very much at the time. So, on the third day, I left for Beshisahar, the starting point of the Annapurna circuit. It was a different world, and I was stunned by the beauty of rural Nepal and by the warmth of the people.

According to you, it was the remoteness of the mountains you were seeking. What else did you discover?
I still remember the people up there, with shining eyes. They hardly had anything in terms of materialistic possessions and yet they seemed to be content and happy; happy from deep inside, not a shallow and superfluous happiness. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality, which came from their hearts; from their simplicity and their strong connection with the place they lived in. I never heard anybody complain in spite of all the hardships on the high mountains. Life up there is definitely very challenging and it was there that I realized, I do not really need a car, flat, answering machine, etc. Everything I needed was in my backpack. I was still carrying too much, because I wanted to be prepared for everything, which actually you can never be. I still remember the sunset behind the Dhaulagiri and the orange glowing light reflected from the snow-covered mountains around. For the first time in many years, I sat down and cried. This happened just after crossing the Thorang-La, a pass 5,400 meters in altitude. I cried out of happiness and thankfulness for what life had offered me. Maybe, that is when I started to realize I didn’t want to continue what I had been doing. It was not a decision against something; it was a decision towards something. A week after I returned from trekking, I visited Maiti Nepal. This was in November 1997, and Maiti Nepal was a small organization at that time.

What was it about girl trafficking that moved you?
It was something I could not imagine. I could not imagine how people can forcefully take a girl out of her family, just for profit. It is all about money, nothing else. How can people stoop that low in their moral thinking that a human body, a child becomes a commodity? I really could not understand then and I still don’t!

Tell us about your decision to help Maiti Nepal?
I will never forget my first visit to Maiti Nepal when I met Anuradha Koirala, who later became Anu Didi for me. She told me about the problems of girl trafficking. She then introduced me to some of the returnees and told me what they had gone through. I still remember one girl; she was only 14 then, and had been in the brothels for 5 years. She had tuberculosis, hepatitis and was HIV positive and was expected to die very soon, but she has survived. I have learnt that miracles do happen. I still remember the poor infrastructure of Maiti Nepal at the time; the dark and damp rooms of the women’s shelter, the tiny little courtyard with only a small piece of open sky above. I was impressed by the outstanding work of Anu Didi and her organization. She has changed the lives of so many girls and has made people aware of the problem of trafficking all over Nepal. I am thankful to her for giving me the precious opportunity to make my life truly meaningful.

In what way did you decide to help Maiti Nepal?
This is a crucial point, also very crucial for all those who want to do something. First, I did not have the slightest idea how I could be beneficial to Maiti, apart from issuing a cheque. I continued to travel, and after a year around the Himalayas, I came back through China and Tibet. While traveling, I realized it should not be a question of what I could do, but about my strengths and abilities, and how I could combine them with the needs at Maiti. Anu Didi had told me about the big challenge to find jobs for the girls, which are vital for their living and self-esteem. As a business consultant who worked in tourism and hotel management, I got the idea to open a Café for Maiti Nepal, where girls could find employment in a safe and protected environment. “Café Maiti” should have become a profit-orientated business for the self-sustainability of the organization as well as for the employed girls.

Tell us more about “Café Maiti”
Actually this idea was the starting point of everything. After my return to Germany in 1998, I wrote a feasibility study, set up “Help for Maiti Nepal” and started fund-raising for this project. During this time, a Catholic priest told me about Dr.Winfried Kill and the Sonja Kill Foundation. I contacted Dr. Kill and told him about the problem of trafficking in Nepal and the impressive work of Maiti Nepal. Until then he and his wife had never supported projects outside of Germany. I invited Dr. Kill to come to Nepal to see the work of Maiti Nepal with his very own eyes, which he and his wife did in October 1999 on a stopover to Tibet. When Dr. Kill met Anu Didi and saw her work and the poor infrastructure of the organization at the time, he decided to lend support right away. Instead of “Café Maiti,” the new Maiti Nepal Protection and Rehabilitation Center was built, which was my first project and many have followed since then. “Café Maiti” was the initiating idea and I guess that is what it was meant to be.

You represent individual donors, but you are also the vice chairperson of BONO Direct Aid Association. Tell us about BONO?
In 2003, “Help for Maiti Nepal” was tied up with BONO Direct Aid Association. BONO comes from the Greek word “bonum”, which means the good. We help people who are in urgent need of support and have no one to turn to. Our vision is to connect people in need of help with people who can help. In this way, an efficient support network was established, which should expand further. We are a direct aid association, which means we are only supporting projects in developing countries, which we either know personally or where one of our members is actively involved. BONO guarantees that 100 per cent of every donation will reach the needy people in the projects of our partner organizations. We have skilled people and experts in our board like doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and teachers, but they all work voluntarily, including myself. We pay for our flight tickets and living costs in the project countries ourselves. Membership fees and sponsorships cover all organizational costs. Our partner organizations in Nepal are Maiti Nepal and Nepal Matri Griha. In India, we support Rescue Foundation, the former Rescue Center of Maiti Nepal in Mumbai. We have also supported a school project in the Philippines and a Tsunami project in Sri Lanka.

Is fundraising difficult?
No. Whatever your heart believes in and if it is for the good, I think nothing will be difficult, because everything will work out. It is not because you are good, but because the cause is good and the intentions are good, that things will work out. And things, which work out are not difficult. Are they?

Can you tell us how you felt when you first saw a young AIDS victim suffering?
Absolutely helpless! I felt this strong feeling of injustice. There are many ways how girls are being trafficked. Whether the girls are lured by lucrative job offers, used as drug couriers or cheated through false marriages, it always happens because people want to make money. Innocent victims are infected with HIV/AIDS because people only look for their satisfaction. Young souls are destroyed because people want to enjoy. After seeing the reality in the brothels and young girls dying before they even grow up, I cannot look away. My life will not become better if I look away or if I ignore it. My life will become better, if I look at it and if I try to do something. That is from where I get my motivation. And see, we cannot change reality, we cannot go there and close all the brothels, we cannot go to the villages to stop trafficking forever, but we can work towards it in small steps.

Do you think there is a way to minimize trafficking?
Of course! Maiti has intercepted more than 5,200 girls in the last few years. For every victim you intercept at the border, the overall problem is already becoming smaller by one person.