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Janet and Fielden Allison get some fresh air at African Christian College in Swaziland. – PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD

Couple’s marriage ministry spans Africa

NGWENYA, Swaziland — Fielden and Janet Allison stand in line behind women holding babies and men holding motorcycle helmets.
One by one, clerks stamp their passports as they exit the Kingdom of Swaziland. A few hundred feet away, they’ll queue up again, to officially enter the Republic of South Africa.
The Allisons — who met in fifth grade at Crowley’s Ridge Academy in Paragould, Ark., and married 41 years ago — will cross about a dozen such checkpoints on their 10-week, 8,000-mile trek across Africa.
Between countries, a customs officer eyes the stacks of cardboard boxes in the back of the Allisons’ truck. He looks at the magnetic sign on the truck’s door and waves them through.
The sign, reading “Africa Institute of Marriage & Family,” is a fast-pass through customs, Fielden Allison jokes. When an officer asks him what it means, he says, “We’re marriage counselors. How’s your marriage?”
More often than not, the wide-eyed customs officer tells him to move along.
Africans don’t spend a lot of time talking about their marriages, Janet Allison says, opening a thermos of coffee after the checkpoints.
Wives are taught to be silent. Husbands make the important decisions and don’t make mistakes — or at least they’re taught not to admit to mistakes. Communication is minimal.
But Africa is changing. Even in developing nations, women are entering the workforce. Husbands leave home for weeks at a time on business trips. Infidelity is common.
So is polygamy, in some parts of Africa. The king of Swaziland has 14 wives — and the country has the continent’s most severe AIDS epidemic. Nearly one in four adults in Swaziland lives with HIV, according to the United States Agency for International Development.
The Allisons see the grim statistics as a charge to talk about God’s plan for marriage.
In Swaziland, they live on the campus of African Christian College, a three-year training facility for African ministers and their wives. They teach courses on marriage and family.
On the road, they speak at marriage retreats and seminars hosted by Churches of Christ, covering topics from communication to child-rearing to finances — and the sexual needs of men and women.
“We break a lot of taboos there,” Janet Allison says.
The Allisons have lived in Africa for 38 years, helping Christians train leaders and plant congregations. They raised five children on African soil. Two now serve as missionaries in Mozambique and Cambodia.
In 1984, while working among the Kipsigis of western Kenya, four young men approached the Allisons for help. They wanted to marry Christian girls who had not undergone female circumcision, a painful ritual practiced by the tribe’s animists.
The young men’s parents claimed the Christian girls would not get pregnant — and not bear sons. Bibles in hand, the Allisons counseled and prayed with the young men.
“Interestingly, all four girls got pregnant the first year” of their marriages, Fielden Allison said, “and all four of them had sons.” A few of the young men’s parents converted to Christianity.
The Allisons kept counseling couples and teaching about marriage. Janet Allison earned a master’s in marriage and family therapy from Harding University in Searcy, Ark., where her husband taught as a visiting missionary for two years.
The couple has produced radio broadcasts, aired across the continent via Louisiana-based World Radio Gospel Broadcasts. Churches of Christ in Arkansas support the Allisons.
Finding good resources for African marriages is difficult, Janet Allison said. A lot of American books advise couples to go on trips together and buy cards and flowers for each other.
Africans don’t give flowers, and many find it difficult to afford a meal at a restaurant.
“So you have to find alternative things that they can do to have fun,” Janet Allison said.
They encourage husbands to give their wives meat or sugar — gifts that benefit the family.
They also teach families to play games together — a unique concept in many parts of Africa.
Communication is a key issue, Janet Allison said. Husbands and wives have “just never talked about a lot of things together. They kind of have their separate roles, but we try to teach them what becoming one really is. They need to be making decisions together.”
The Allisons emphasize to their students that “we’re not trying to make you follow an American example of marriage,” Fielden Allison said. “We believe that God, in his Word, has set down what marriages and family should be like, and that’s what we’re trying to tell you — and it goes across cultures.”

During their tour, the Allisons will conduct brief marriage enrichment workshops and longer courses for Christian couples, equipping them to lead workshops of their own.
In the West African nation of Togo, churches among the Kabiye people chose seven couples to attend a weeklong retreat with the Allisons last year. Those couples are teaching what they learned and plan to host a marriage training class for a recently planted church. The congregation has 11 newly baptized couples, missionary Matt Miller said.
“Marriage relationships in Togo — as in other places in the world — are very broken,” Miller said, “and the example of change in these couples’ lives is a great testimony to the power of God that helps draw others to Jesus.”
The Allisons hosted an all-day marriage seminar for the Kabiye people.
One attendee, Esowe Adam, said she and her husband prayed together — for the first time in their marriage — after the seminar.
“We have learned so many things that we didn’t know,” she said, “and realized that our thoughts about marriage and family have been shaped by African culture more than by the Bible.”
JeanMarie Pelitosim, an elder of a church in Lassa Tchou, Togo, attended the seminar with his wife, Christene.
“So much has changed in our marriage,” Christene Pelitosim said. “We don’t fight like we used to. … We are also much more united in raising our children.
“We are helping a couple now who have been fighting for a long time,” she added. “They are now learning how to reconcile their problems and are open to studying the Bible.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, see www.aimf.allisonmission.com.
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