Dense fog invaded the Mandara Valley. In the clearness of the plain, a delegation of colonial officials awaited them, white men wearing safari hats. It was 1953 and the French Cameroon was drawing up a census of the Mafa people, a native of the extreme north of the country. Monsieur Duc, the highest authority, subjected them to a relentless interrogation with the help of the interpreter: “Name? Marital status, children or animals? Tell him that I have orders to burn down his house if he does not cooperate ”. Some knelt in respect and covered their shoulders with the reddish earth of Africa. The 44-year-old Swiss travel writer and filmmaker René Gardi, who would take only a few months to bring Mafa culture to the living rooms of his compatriots, noted in a notebook, after seeing the scene: “It may seem cruel, yes. But how else do you want to force these savages to pay taxes?
Switzerland never had colonies. For a large part of its population, the first contacts with the African continent were through Gardi. Fascinated by ancient iron mining, he planned an expedition to Mandara Mountain, accompanied by the anthropologist Paul Hinderling, a researcher at the Museum of Cultures in Basel. They established their home with the help of European missionaries and collaborated with French civil servants. As a result of this trip, Gardi took home more than 2,300 photographs, seven rolls of film, eight hours of audio, and a 102-page diary full of secrets. A material that takes advantage African Mirror, a documentary that is now being launched by the Filmin platform in Spain.
In half a century of successive visits to Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad or the Sahara, Gardi accumulated 30,000 slides. He used some of this material in the books, lectures and television programs with which he became known to the German-speaking public, but most of it was never published. The State Archives of the Canton of Bern – the author’s hometown – acquired a large part of the collection after his death in 2000. Digging into these, another documentary filmmaker, Micha Hedinger, discovered the reverse of Gardi’s films, which turned the Cameroonian highlands into an idyllic black Eden alien to civilization. In those films “colonial hostility was conscientiously hidden” that his notes and travel photographs do reflect. Hedinger edited a selection of them in African Mirror. Created entirely from archival footage, it demystifies the best-selling Swiss chronicles.
Gardi won the sympathy of critics and the “Most Appropriate Documentary for Young People” award at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival for his film Mandara. He acknowledges in his private correspondence that during the recording he used as actors neighbors whom he hired in Souledé, the closest town. Stripped of their shorts and sneakers, they became real in front of the camera. makatamNaked Indians according to the jargon of the colonists. Hedinger reused Gardi’s material in order to deconstruct his work: “I tried to show that the creation of these images is a form of colonialism, which was not clear at the time,” even though Gardi himself has already expressed his desire to that Switzerland possess overseas territories. “I wish we had colonies and our young people could go out to discover the world,” he wrote.
The project was initially supported by René Gardi’s son Bernhard Gardi, who as an anthropologist had inherited his father’s fascination for Africa. The relationship with Hedinger was broken when they found in the father’s diaries a confession that he made in his days as a teacher: he had abused several students between 1940 and 1943. He revealed it from the bed of the Bienne hospital, where an attempt led him failed suicide. Unhinged, Gardi turned himself in to the police. In 1944 the Berne High Court sentenced him to serve a suspended prison sentence for “illegal sexual relations with children.” He was banned from teaching again for a decade. Hedinger says that it was then that Gardi “made a profession of his passion, working as a travel writer and photographer.” The German National Library keeps a hundred of these publications, translated into 15 languages, including Spanish.
Bernhard Gardi has declined to answer questions from this newspaper. “He has a difficult relationship with the memory of his father,” abounds Hedinger, who found the sentence in court records. It is difficult to know if the Gardi family knew of the past of the hero, although it seems obvious that the Swiss pre-internet society was never aware of it. Hedinger decided not to sidestep the find and introduced it into his documentary footage. The news quickly spread through a city of 135,000 inhabitants, since throughout his life Gardi was awarded numerous recognitions – such as the doctorate honoris causa from the University of Bern – and his memory remained intact. However, the commission for the naming of the streets of Bern said in January that the recently known sentence “undermines the honor” of the writer and recommended to the City Council to remove the plaque from Gardistrasse.
The change in the name of the street, located since 2004 in the Wankdorf neighborhood, is due only to sexual offenses. No consideration of possible colonial oppressions, as explained by the councilor for Civil Engineering of the city, Marieke Kruit, a member of the Swiss Socialist Party: “To make the decision, that vision, nowadays quite criticized, that Gardi transmitted from Africa”. The road will be named after a woman, since the Corporation has proposed to reach parity in the local gazette within five years. Although the final decision will be made this summer, municipal sources report that there are already candidates: Bertha Trüssel, feminist editor, and Marie Adam-Doerrer, member of the labor movement of the early 20th century. Two women leaders to amend the mistakes of the past in urban space.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.