January 23 2018

Intersections: A Zimbabwe-US Class

by Maaraidzo E. Mutambara, Africa University and Traci C. West, Drew University Theological School

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.

In this essay we each reflect on our cotaught course, Christian Ethics and Global Issues. We comment on some of the pedagogical challenges and opportunities that arose as we navigated the intersecting cultural dynamics that teaching this class involved. 

Part I: “Intersectionality in Theological Education: Engaging Complexity, Activism And Multiple Consciousness” by Maaraidzo E. Mutambara

​In January 2014, I participated in an intercultural exchange program between Drew University Theological School and Africa University faculty that took place at Africa University (AU) in Mutare, Zimbabwe. This was the first of its kind at the university, an arrangement made through connections established by the dean of the faculty of theology at AU, Dr. Beauty Maenzanise. The contents of the course were decided upon by Professor Traci West and myself based on what we considered to be the germane and pressing ethical issues for the students in their respective contexts. We met two months before the beginning of the class to discuss the themes, topics, and logistics.
The class was comprised of students from very diverse cultural backgrounds. AU students came from at least six African countries. There were five master of arts students (two women and three men) and ten bachelor of divinity students (five women and five men), all participating in theological education. The majority of the students were members of the United Methodist Church, except for two students, one Baptist and one Presbyterian. The US students came mostly from the eastern part of the country. Their group also included international students who were from South Korea. Selected readings for the class came from African, US, and South Korean scholars. Themes covered included environmental justice, HIV, AIDS, and marriage/gender violence (heterosexual and homosexual). Gender was the crosscutting issue in these areas. 

Pedagogical Issues: Challenges and Opportunities

The exciting program involved teaching ethics across denominational, national, racial, gender, age, and cultural differences, and it presented some challenges and opportunities that required creativity on the part of Professor West and me. Below, I share some of the lessons and encounters that we had in our intercultural exchange.

Videos/DVDs can be an effective medium for intercultural communication. Discussing contentious issues in an intercultural setting can be provocative, and I learned that a good film can be an effective pedagogical device. The videos used in class not only captured the cultural, religious, social, and gender dimensions of the issues at hand, they also allowed disadvantaged members of the societies in question to speak for themselves. The documentaries confirmed for students that the ethical issues discussed in class were indeed real. This was very important in my African milieu where gender inequality issues, especially as they relate to women, are attributed to western influence and associated with the elite. I noticed that some of the male students from AU watched in disbelief as some African female participants in the videos challenged patriarchal authority in their contexts. Good examples of this are included in the films Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai and Positive in Church: Church Leadership Dealing with HIV and AIDS.1 The videos exposed oppressive gender norms, especially as they relate to women in some African cultures, and, at the same time, debunked the stereotype that women are generally timid. Similarly, the video on the environmental problems in the United States called into question the stereotype held by some AU students that only rich people live in the United States. The videos were useful teaching tools in the sense that they provided an entry point for some very fruitful discussion later on about gender inequalities and environmental justice, and they offered greater objectivity in analyzing the issues.

Class presentations were a means to promote interaction in an intercultural setting. One of the purposes of organizing the intercultural exchange was to facilitate the exchange of cultures and ideas among the participants. It is regrettable that the limited time we had for the program did not permit much physical interaction among the students, especially during class times. The seating arrangement in class did not help as students sat according to some small clusters (probably interest groups) that remained intact throughout the course of the program. In order to facilitate students’ familiarization with the topical issues in a context other than their own, we devised an assignment whereby a student was expected to respond in writing and orally to an article that came from an unfamiliar context. Students were asked to share the new ideas that they learned from the readings and what they disagreed with in the readings. The exercise was helpful because it opened students to looking at an issue from a different perspective. It also provoked some responses from others.

Clarification of cultural presuppositions became critical for intercultural discussion/debates. The theological and ethical questions students had on the selected topical issues reflected the social, political, and cultural concerns of their contexts. This came out clearly in the discussion on gender and family. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage dominated the discussion and were the site of the most intense debate. The topic generated a great deal of interest for the US students who candidly expressed their views. Some African students, however, were reluctant to share their thoughts on this matter, and when they did, it was to express their negative attitude towards the issues, citing culture as the reason. The presuppositions that shape views about family and marriage in the US and African contexts were not clearly defined, and cultural assumptions about marriage and family were taken for granted by both the US and African students. The result was that it was difficult to understand what each side was saying about the matters in question. In addition, the discussion also showed that the location of the intercultural exchange can influence the nature of the exchange. It is possible that the African students’ negative attitudes toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage were influenced by the course’s location in Zimbabwe. There was suspicion on the part of some Africa University students that the issues were part of a hidden agenda. On the other hand, some of the students expressed later that open discussion of such sexual issues was not acceptable in their culture(s). Others asked why other forms of marriage that generated ethical issues for the church today (e.g., polygamous relationships) were not given the same attention. The influence of culture on moral decision making was very clear. From this experience I learned that it is critical that participants engaging in intercultural exchange clarify their cultural and moral presumptions.

Different institutional calendars and requirements created quandaries. These were not factored into the planning process of the intercultural exchange program. In our case, the meeting time for the planned course fell short of the thirty-six hours that were required for AU students. The result was that AU students continued to meet after the class had formally ended. The extra meetings encroached into the first two weeks of the following semester and required adjusting the semester time table in order to accommodate this unforeseen hurdle. Despite the challenges that came with this, it turned out that the extra time was really needed. Some undergraduate students, especially those from Francophone and Portuguese-speaking countries who had just one year of intensive English classes, confessed that they struggled to keep up with the required reading for the course and to understand the accent of their colleagues. Some of them expressed that they felt inadequate in the presence of the Drew Theological School students because they did not have confidence in their English language skills. The situation, I observed, also negatively affected their participation in group discussions.

Imbalances in access to resources are a dilemma for partners in intercultural exchange. The different economic situation that we operated in affected the way we planned and prepared for the class. Accessing relevant and up-to-date literature is one of the obstacles I always face when putting together literature for a culturally diverse group of students. This intercultural exchange was not an exception. I was very glad and relieved when, after a couple of consultations, my colleague Professor West came up with a packet of readings for the class. In addition to the resources in the packet of readings, I invited colleagues with particular expertise in relevant areas, such as HIV and AIDS, to contribute as guest speakers. 

Part II: “Lessons from Our Zimbabwe-US Teaching Partnership” by Traci C. West

For me, the class was a first-time experiment in intercultural, transnational learning and team teaching at an African university. It was an intensive class that met daily over a period of a few weeks. Some of the most difficult moments inside the classroom emerged when the topic of heterosexual marital rape in the context of heterosexual transmission of HIV and AIDS came up. There were equally intense exchanges when we discussed same gender marriages of life-long Christians as part of our focus on contemporary views of gender and family in church and society.

Fertile ground for transformational learning resided precisely in the fact that the nationalities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, age range, sexual orientations, politics, and theologies of the students represented such a broad spectrum. I should note that unlike their theological views or national backgrounds, we did not include open discussion of the sexual orientation of students in part because of the potential risks for gay and bisexual students in Zimbabwe where homosexuality is outlawed. I struggled with the challenge of encouraging honest and respectful discussions of church debates on sexual orientation without placing these students at risk. 

It was difficult to gauge the range in the economic backgrounds of the students. I am not sure how similar or different the resources of their families were, nor how to make accurate transnational comparisons of the wealth or poverty of their varying local contexts. I found it to be exciting but also a new challenge for me to teach AU students from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Angola. They had very specific cultural backgrounds that were not only unfamiliar to me, but also represented only a portion of the populations in those nation-states. The cultural makeup of the students who came with me to Zimbabwe was more representative of the classroom in which I routinely teach: African American and white US citizens as well as international students from South Korea. As a symbolic acknowledgement of the cultural diversity represented in the room, either Professor Mutambara or I began class each day with a simple “good morning” greeting in Swahili, French, Shona, Korean, and English.

The major goal that I found so compelling when I first envisioned this undertaking turned out to be a monumental challenge that provoked both a few painfully disheartening moments as well as some delightful breakthroughs. I had hoped to boldly dismantle stereotypes, particularly some of the stereotypes of Africans that non-African Christians tend to hold. In my setting, some seminary students (US and international) who enter with a strong church background may associate Africa exclusively with their church mission projects. When starting to plan the exchange, I knew that I did not want to organize what would be seen as a more typical cross-cultural trip for students from US schools to the global South, comprised of tours of cultural sites and visits to organizations that introduce the mission needs of and projects for black Africans.

I had an alternative vision for this trip. I wanted to nurture an understanding of Africa as a site of advanced knowledge. This focus needed to be rooted in intercultural exchange, not an exercise in intellectually consuming “the other.” Professor Mutambara and I experimented with several classroom methods for embodying this kind of intercultural exchange. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that more time than we actually had for the class was needed. It would take much more time to effectively introduce students from my American university to the ideas of African scholars and African academic culture in a manner that inculcated a deep association between Africa and the specifics of religious thought generated by scholars from across that continent. 

For meaningful shared learning and honest classroom interactions, the students needed the space to discover how to interpersonally relate to one another across multiple cultural barriers. In several cases, age groupings and degrees of maturity proved to be much more salient for creating divisions and bridges among students than predictable barriers of three differing continental sociopolitical locations (Africa, Asia, and America). The powerful influence of the western consumption values that we brought also proved to be revealing. Some (not all) of the US students expressed a need for more time out from the tight schedule of classes and homework in order to go shopping. As the students and I struggled over these requests, I may have clung too rigidly to my disdain for tourism and shopping that would supplant joint studying of the course material. I did not anticipate the relationship building that occurred among the students as they worked out private payment arrangements (I learned about after the trip) with local Zimbabwe students with cars. Together they went to town to buy snacks and food familiar to the US students not offered in the dining hall. A few of the US students also bought handmade, tailored clothing goods from local entrepreneurs identified by local students. As I reflect on it now, I must consider that this kind of relationship building may have enabled the survival of some of the tense moments in the classroom. For some of the US students, might the comfortable familiarity of economic overconsumption have lowered anxiety about the unfamiliar setting and allowed more absorption and engagement of ideas by African scholars? Perhaps.  

Another unexpected lesson concerned the exercise of my professorial authority. I found that, in general, my (host university) students—those who came from African nations—held a more formal understanding of professorial authority and gave me more deference than I had been accustomed to receiving. This sort of formality seemed to be a dominant part of the overall academic culture there and therefore difficult for me to reject in favor of the informality I prefer. But, simultaneously, for some of those students in the class, there were certain assertions they would make about what was an authentically African understanding of morality that stood out as an exception to this deference. They did not seem to grant me professorial authority to instruct them to question or critically examine such assertions in part because I was a cultural outsider, a non-African. The space and place of the university setting seemed to help to authenticate my outsiderness. My blackness and female gender identity no doubt also played a role in this issue of authority, in combination with the intensifying dynamics of the setting. I felt like I only began the process of reaping the stimulating possibilities for learning from the complex configuration of intersections that comprise the issues to which transnational, intercultural teaching must attend.


1 Taking Root is a documentary narrative about Wangari Maathai, an activist from Kenya who was the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In 1977, Maathai encouraged rural women in her country to plant trees to address problems stemming from a degraded environment. This initiative gave birth to the Green Belt movement, a nationwide movement aimed to safeguard the environment, defend human rights, and promote democracy. In the documentary, environmental degradation is not just a technical problem; it is a result of the intersection of economic, gender, social, and political injustices. Positive in Church: Church Leadership Dealing with HIV shows how African church leaders are dealing with HIV in some churches in southern African countries. The issues of stigma and discrimination of people with HIV is discussed together with ways of overcoming such in the church. The DVD has a user guide that can be used for discussion.^


D & DJ, producers. 2012. Positive in Church: Church Leadership Dealing with HIV. Online film documentary. http://www.positiveinchurch.org/.

Dater, Alan, and Lisa Merton, directors. 2008. Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. United States: Marlboro Productions. DVD.

Orobator, Agbonkhianmeghe E. 2011. "Ethics Brewed in an African Pot." Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 31 (1): 3–16.

Ostrow, Marty and Terry Kay Rockefeller, directors. 2007. Renewal: Stories from America's Religious-Environmental Movement. United States: Fine Cut Productions. http://www.renewalproject.net/.

World Council of Churches. 2013. “Moral Discernment in the Churches: A Study Document.” Faith and Order Paper No. 215. Geneva: World Council of Churches. http://publications.oikoumene.org.

​Maaraidzo Elizabeth Mutambara is a native of Zimbabwe who teaches ethics and theology at Africa University in Zimbabwe. She is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and is currently the vice chairperson of the Association of Theological Institutions in Southern and Central Africa (ATISCA). Her current research interests include the intersection of ethics, gender and environmental issues in Africa and, religion, culture and disability in Africa. Her publications include, “African Women Theologies Critique Inculturation,” in Inculturation and Postcolonial Discourse in African Theology (Peter Lang, 2006).

Traci C. West is professor of ethics and African American studies at Drew University Theological School in Madison, NJ (USA). Her research interests include Christian liberationist ethics and related issues of race, gender, and sexuality in church and society. She is currently working on a project that explores transnational Africana activist strategies to address gender violence against women and girls. She is the author of Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (New York University Press, 1999), and editor of Our Family Values: Religion and Same-sex Marriage (Praeger, 2006).

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.