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Glenna S. Jackson

"Tili pamadzi ndipo boti latifela. Malo lafelawo ndi owopsya chifukwa tazungulilidwa ndi mvuu. Tumizani boti lina mwansanga chifukwa chilichonse chingathe kuchitika." These words were whispered hurriedly in the Chechewa language through a walkie-talkie by the guide I was with in a small motor-boat on Lake Malawi. Just a few minutes earlier and out of curiosity, I had asked the guide why we were able to motor smack dab through the middle of the hippo pools since anytime I had been near hippo pools on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, we had stayed very far away. He answered that hippopotami are afraid of the sound of motors and we were in no danger. Fifteen minutes later, the motor conked out. The guide radioed back the message and motioned for us to be absolutely still and make no noises, even with the camera. I whispered, "Hippos are vegetarian, right?" He nodded yes. So I thought, "Cool — stuck in the middle of a hippo pool — how many times can that happen in one's lifetime?" I have to admit that when we were rescued forty-five minutes later by two other boats (one for us and one for the ailing vessel), I was disappointed: I was having a good time watching the hippos watch us and being close enough to touch each other. At supper that night with my Africa University traveling companions and students, Mike Mwali and Justice Khimbi, I asked what the guide had said when he radioed back. They howled with laughter as Justice translated, "We're on water and the boat has broken down at a dangerous place because we're surrounded by hippos. Send another boat quickly because anything can happen. We are really at the edge of smash!!" Since Mike and Justice are always hedging their bets during our travels together, Mike decided that the odds had been about "fifty-fifty that the hippos didn't destroy us."

My adventures on the Continent of Africa began nearly four years ago when I did my sabbatical leave at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. As a newcomer to African cultures and a NT scholar, I was immediately humbled because I discovered very quickly that Africans know far more and have much better insights into the study of the NT than we as westerners could ever possibly hope to have. One of the classes that I taught at Africa University was "The Parables of Jesus" for fourth-year students (seniors) who graduated the following June with Bachelor of Divinity degrees. As a part of their weekly assignment, each student was to write from his or her own oral tradition or experience a parable that paralleled and/or served as an introduction to NT parables.

As the students (who were from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Burundi, and Angola) and I worked our way through a semester of NT parables and their African-culture counterparts, students began to identify problems in western analyses of biblical texts. The students continue to live in agrarian, technologically undeveloped rural areas and can, therefore, relate to an economically poor lifestyle of two thousand years ago. The oral culture is still the means for transmitting stories and traditions from person to person, village to village and generation to generation. Quite simply, we in the West have no point of reference for this kind of oral tradition. These students convinced me that I needed to return to Africa and travel with them to the rural areas from which they came.

I did just that for three consecutive summers (so far) and was fascinated by the stories and songs I heard and the dances I witnessed. Many of their ancient traditions, as well as their current ways of living, parallel and, therefore, help to explain the context of the New Testament teachings. For example, rural Africans, in my estimation, are living very much as first-century residents of Palestine likely were. I am convinced, therefore, that there are strong connections between the cultural context of the New Testament and that of contemporary Africa. Examples that I saw in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Kenya include: men fishing and women grinding maize for the day's meal; small boys catching mice and roasting them on sticks to eat and sell; beggars and prostitutes in the streets; women carrying babies on their backs and baskets on their heads; light from oil and paraffin lamps on the roads at night (which constitutes a language unto itself); neighbors going next door to ask for bread to feed an unexpected guest (on more than one occasion); and demon-possessed children (including one of my traveling companion's epileptic teenager who has since died). As I talked with chiefs and elders of villages, I could see other, more general, comparisons between biblical times and rural African cultures, such as genealogies that influence inheritance laws and birthrights, gender and age groupings, the high value of the elderly as well as a low value of social outcasts, and spiritual attachment to ancestors and ancestral lands. As a result of these and other such experiences and observations on the Continent of Africa during these past few years, I have persuaded students and graduates of Africa University to write commentaries on NT parables from their African perspectives. With them as the authors, I will serve as editor and then write a critique of western understandings of NT texts and times based on that commentary.

A Shona (Zimbabwean) parable from Samuel Dzobo, one of my students at Africa University, will serve as an example of what I am hearing in Africa: "It is like the rains have come and everyone is busy in the fields. Then a widow has her only two oxen get lost in the forest. For two weeks, she has been looking for the two oxen to no avail. She knows she is late with planting. She goes to her deceased husband's brother to ask him to plough her one field, but he refuses because she refused to be inherited. She goes to another and he refuses because he has not finished plowing his last field and that his oxen are tired. The widow then goes to the aunt of her deceased husband to have her son plough her field, but the aunt refuses because her son would want to rest for he had been busy with their own fields. The widow gives up and she knows she cannot plant in her field. Then a friend of her deceased husband comes by and he finds that her field has not been ploughed. He brought his own oxen and ploughs the field and sent his sons to look for the lost oxen. That year the widow had a great harvest, more than anyone else in the village."

I often use this parable as a tool for teaching Jesus' parables in my own classroom at Otterbein College. For example, I ask, "What background information or questions about the culture does one need to ask to understand this parable?" "Why are these particular characters included in the story; i.e., what is the role or function of each?" "What is 'inheritance'?"

Not only am I humbled as a NT scholar in Africa, but I also see the need to critique western understanding of NT times. Most of our western historical reconstructions are based on what we have learned through primary and secondary written sources, and occasional archaeological findings. Few of us take the time to actually live as first-century persons may have lived. As an example, one of the highlights of two different trips to Malawi has been fishing at night in boats in the middle of Lake Malawi with the local fishermen; their fishing culture may be very similar to that of first-century Palestine. Many other scholars are engaged in theological and biblical studies in Africa. But as a westerner coming into an African context, my eyes and ears are wide open and unaccustomed: I see the ordinary in Africa as extraordinary from my worldview and then it circles around to be the ordinary in the context of NT times. As I continue my travels and research, I hope to learn first hand from Africans what kind of life Jesus and those around him may have had.

Glenna S. Jackson is an associate professor at Otterbein College and teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy.

Citation: Glenna S. Jackson, " "Hippos are Vegetarians, Right?": Teaching and Learning Parables in an African Context," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2004]. Online:


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