Fair Trade pioneer and bridge builder - on the death of Hans Knöpfli

hans knöpfli zingg

Hans Knöpfli in his office at Mission 21 in Basel. His commitment lives on in the project work for the people in Cameroon. Photo: Dorothee Adrian/Mission 21.

On January 30, Rev. Hans Knöpfli-Zingg, longtime collaborator of Basel Mission and Mission 21, passed away at the age of 95. Hans Knöpfli lived and worked in the grasslands of Cameroon for almost 40 years. As a fair trade pioneer and cultural bridge builder, he had a lasting impact on cooperation with the people of Cameroon. In 2005, the University of Yaoundé awarded him an honorary doctorate for his work.

After a long and fulfilling life, Hans Knöpfli passed away peacefully on Monday. He spent more than a third of his life working for the Basel Mission in Cameroon. He was committed to the people of the Grasslands, the northwest region of Cameroon, on an equal footing and was recognized by the people of this region as one of their own, which was expressed in various appointments.

"Sharing your life with others is the most precious thing you can give to each other. And Hans has done this in an impressive way," writes Jochen Kirsch, director of Mission 21, in his tribute. Hans Knöpfli "got involved in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the grasslands. He immersed himself in their everyday life, in their life and culture, full of appreciation and passion, but also in all simplicity and humility."

Carpenter and priest

During his education, Hans Knöpfli, born on November 3, 1927, combined manual skills and social commitment. After a three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship as a carpenter, he entered the mission seminary in Basel in 1949, completed his studies in 1955 and was ordained in the same year. A year later he began his mission in Cameroon, which was to last until 1993.

He was active as a pastor, as a school administrator and craftsman, and soon as the founder of various craft centers and stores. These opened up vocational training for numerous young people, providing them with work and income. As a result, traditional craft techniques and products regained importance.

Fair trade pioneer

The appreciation of regional culture and the promotion of young people through education and training were linked by Hans Knöpfli out of a vision of mission shaped by development policy, as he explained in an interview in 1978: "This work helps to change the image of mission, which destroys cultures," and "this work is the practice of the current theory of development cooperation". Hans Knöpfli thus became a fair trade pioneer in Switzerland. It was through his efforts that the first world store was established in Basel in 1974, which continues to this day under the name Mercifair.

Festus Asana, former leader of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, describes the significance of Hans Knöpfli's work for the population as follows: "The passion of Pastor Knöpfli was to strengthen and preserve the local arts and crafts of the grasslands. And it became a great success because Father Knöpfli dedicated himself to this goal with great conviction. Indeed - for him it was a passion!" It was a great honor for Hans Knöpfli that the Faculty of Protestant Theology of the University of Yaoundé honored his work in 2005 and awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Passion for cultural heritage

Back in Switzerland, Hans Knöpfli gave expression to his passion for the cultural heritage of the grasslands in several books that are a lasting testimony of connection and appreciation with the people of Cameroon. For many years, he also voluntarily supported the work of Mission 21, which works for the people of Cameroon with various projects together with local partner churches and organizations. Hans Knöpfli contributed as a translator, advising on fair trade and especially supporting the work of his wife Heidi Zingg Knöpfli.

As director of studies, she was active in Mission 21 for education in Switzerland and also acted as a bridge builder across cultural borders. Director Jochen Kirsch writes in his tribute: "You were a well-coordinated team until the end. You stimulated and supported each other, and together you succeeded in impressive projects, from which not least the Basel Mission and we as the worldwide community of Mission 21 were able to profit greatly. Hans, together with you, dear Heidi, was a very important and valued co-worker for us long after his retirement, without whom many things would not have been possible." So Jochen Kirsch also includes Heidi Zingg Knöpfli in his appreciation, in the thanks "for all that Hans shared with us and with which he gave us gifts."

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