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Little Smile – a review after 11 years

Is it pure coincidence that I’m sitting here and you there – two worlds that couldn’t be more different – or is it destiny, karma as we call it here? Well anyway, I live and work in a country which has officially chosen a soul mate of mine as its leading figure: Siddharta, a prince living a life full of luxury becoming a Buddha searching for an answer to the central question of life: How can I be happy knowing that my existence is contantly moving towards age, sickness and death? Sri Lanka is one of a few countries that officially propagate Buddhism as sort of a state religion. Following the teachings of Buddha, however, is extremely difficult – there is no savior, no intercessor in heaven, it’s all about letting go fear and desire.

The first time I came across Siddharta was in the same titled novel from Hermann Hesse – I was 14 years old. A short while later Gisela Hausmann, a schoolmate of mine, died of cancer. Again and again I went to her grave asking why she had to die with only 14 years. Why do some people have to die so early and others are allowed to grow extremely old? Why do we have to die at all and what is the point of a life that – at best – mostly leads to a painful dying at an old age? Or is this the worst case and we should better live following the motto “live extreme, die young”?

At the age of 16 I was seriously engaged in the search for the meaning of live. School wasn’t a great help looking for these answers, my parents sometimes gave valuable support. But I wanted to learn more. Steppenwolf, another novel from Hermann Hesse, had increased my inner unrest even more. Whom could I ask about live? Well, the best thing would be to ask those, who have already lived for a long time. And so I went to the seniors home Sankt Elisabeth in my home town Eichstätt where I spent every spare minute during almost 2 years with the old people there, with their diseases and illnesses, their stories and sometimes their wisdom. Their stories, their suffering, their dying – basically the process of loosing step by step all fear of sickness and harm your body might suffer and stop clinging to life. This experience had shaped me and made it impossible for me to live without asking me: “How do I deal with the fact that my life is finite?”

Being a curious person, I became a journalist and eventually came to television where I could retell in pictures and stories what I had seen and experienced. The so important press conferences have never really interested me, and the so called powerful of this world even less. It were the small things, the rather unspectacular things which most of the time had something really big and important to discover, which had my full attention and love.

I found and maintained my niche in a more or less superficial media-world. I met many people, visited many countries and told my stories to millions of people. However, I never forgot what I had learned as a teenager from the old people at the senior home. Then came success, a family, and it took some time till I finally had to admit, that I could no longer say “later” cause one day it might be too late. To really understand that, I probably needed such a tragic experience as the one with the child in the Sri Lankan mountains – that was 1997. (See IT ALL BEGAN WITH A PROMISE)

Two years later I started with my very personal “adventure humanity”, and as it is the case with every adventure its end was and still is open. To be willing to take a risk, to engage in something new and unknown and in return leave familiar security, an interesting job and loved ones behind….. well, that’s simply an adventure. 11 years are a long time, when each of your days is full of incalculable challenges, because you realize that you have agreed to something very unusual – honesty for instance – especially towards yourself.

You probably expected a totally different speech, but I can’t speak about Little Smile without first explaining my own and deepest conviction, because Little Smile is my answer to the question about the meaning of a life that ends in death. If you have understood and accepted this, you realize that everything, really everything in this life is only borrowed. Suddenly things like desire to possess, greed, envy and fear of loss are ridiculous. “See the birds in the fields….”

Of course it is difficult to let go of people and things and for me, too, it was anything but easy and it took a long time to leave EVERYTHING behind – security, job, home, even my own family – and clear my way for something my mother had so precisely expressed shortly before she died: Only love remains.
But unfortunately this also implies, that there are people who might be hurt because you leave them behind – despite being soul mates. And therefore, the understanding and the acceptance of my work without any reproaches, especially from my wife Elke, are a wonderful gift and an incredible contribution for the Little Smile project. There was never ever a word of reproach, on the contrary, from a distance she always supported my work and till today manages the charitable society of supporters in Germany. The 14-year old Marco who has only rarely seen his father has accepted that the children at Little Smile needed his father much more. When the And the fact that the 24-year old Manuel now is here at Little Smile, clearly shows that love remains, because it’s a continuing process – the way I can pass on love I have received, I can be an example for the children at Little Smile and show them sort of a ability to love.

And even if it is true, that we do not live from bread alone, we do need it again and again. This is why idealism only works if it is combined with realism. Without money, without economic structures or integration into the environment, without consideration of the balance of power and social conventions no social project will be able to overcome the phase of almsmen or baggers. Without what you call idealism, without a key idea or vision even the most successful project won’t be more than an enterprise.

Why have I founded my own aid organization, why not engage in already existing organizations? I am convinced that Little Smile, just as I have developed it, has - and must have – its place in this world. A children’s village combined with a nature reserve and organic farm, sitting side by side in the same vehicle being complementary and mutually supportive. What holds true for all the projects of Little Smile, can very well be explained by the first children’s village in Koslanda which has become my home. It’s a large area with paddy fields, pepper plantations, a medicinal herb garden, training centres and a school. However, to be able to completely independent operate in terms of economy, the organic farm in Dikkapitia constitutes the economic partner for the children’s village. Fair trade certified spices are cultivated there – without using chemicals. Especially abandoned women or widows work there. Within 10 years the farm has to be able to cover the basic need of food and goods of the children’s village. Three years have already passed and we’re on a good way, also thanks to AVO, a spice company from Belm. One of their CEOs, Guido Massmann, had visited Little Smile and since then AVO or rather Seyfried has become a reliable partner with a lot of understanding for all the initial difficulties.

And then there is the nature reserve “Little Smile for Nature”, which lies next to the children’s village. More than 100 hectares for animals and plants, and this in a country which markets its nature for tourism, but which is only just beginning to think about its protection. Till action will finally be taken it might be too late – if you consider the pace of slash and burn, urban sprawl and exploitation.

To me a future for children, a future that is worth living, is only possible in an intact environment. Even if the regular failure of the big summits such as the world climate summit sets us thinking, moaning and criticism won’t help. It much better to start doing something ourselves.

For the “little smile” of children, nature and healthy and fair agriculture I have done anything possible day after day during 11 years. The one who has success that is visible in buildings and infrastructure, has also enviers and evokes destructive greed. But is this a reason to avoid development and success and remain dependant on handouts? No! And even when they had arrested me for my engagement for the weakest in this country only 2 months ago, I never doubted that my work and the support of people – especially from Germany – is right and important. Via my son Manuel, who had shared this hard time with us, the children had sent letters to me, letters full of hope and longing that their beloved Little Smile might survive these dark days.

My passport has been confiscated and I’m waiting for two trials against me. But whatever the outcome may be, the idea of Little Smile will survive in the heart of the children, in many people here in Sri Lanka and in my “old” home country Germany too, and perhaps now also a little in your hearts.

Some months ago I had found an old newspaper in which I’ve read a quote by Vaclav Havel that fits so well in my current situation: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Lastly, allow me to remember a very special person in my life, someone who showed me that love is possible and what real love means: On the evening of October 4th 2007 I held the hand of a dying woman. For the last time she looks back in retrospect, she, the tireless fighter who has brought up 12 children and who always had to work and be economical. “Only love remains” – that is my mother’s legacy and this love lives in each of the children, in everything I do out of love.

Thank you for your kind attention and warm regards from the children’s village Little Smile in the Sri Lankan mountains, where at this very moment more than 100 children and child-minders can sleep without fear, because I dare to live humanity.