SPRINGFIELD — A coincidence of timing has connected Springfield to small villages in Tanzania — and the fates of many young women who live there.
Kellen Msseemmaa recently spent six months training African girls to succeed in school, boosted in part by a group of students from Springfield's Central High School.
Msseemmaa (pronounced: mmm-seh-MAH), who is originally from Uganda, was a teacher in Africa before moving to the United States in 2009 with her husband, Daudi.
Before moving, the couple managed a scholarship program, but Kellen said the girls, especially those from rural areas, were failing school because of a host of cultural reasons.
Kellen said many families expected the girls to get married and have children and therefore did not place an importance on education. The Msseemmaas also learned that pregnancy often ended the students' chance to get an education. Kellen said those who succeed and move on to college have a much better chance at financial independence. Those who drop out of school end up living in poverty in their village.
Many times, girls are the victims of men — even family members — who demand sexual favors in exchange for tuition fees. Others are preyed upon by men who offer food to girls who can sometimes go all day without a meal. Others walk miles to school and fall victim to men who offer them rides.
Kellen said the girls do not get basic information that would protect them because it is taboo for parents to discuss sex with their children.
This means many girls fall for simple seduction lies such as "if you have sex standing up, you won't become pregnant."
Because so many of the girls funded by the Msseemmaas had problems, Daudi and Kellen started a program in 2010 called Empowered Girls. The program meets at regular intervals and teaches school-age girls about self-esteem and how to avoid pitfalls that could sabotage their futures.
"We teach them how to get past the barriers in their own culture," Kellen said.
In 2010, Springfield chocolate maker Shawn Askinosie was working with several Central High School students on developing a new line of chocolate featuring an African cocoa. After months of work, the Cocoa Honors group chose a farmer group in Tenende in southwest Tanzania.
As part of the process, the students traveled to Tanzania in August to perform community service, such as funding a new well and helping at the village school.
By coincidence, Daudi and Kellen had recently moved from Chicago to Springfield where Daudi began work as a news designer for the Springfield News-Leader. Daudi heard about the Cocoa Honors program and offered to teach some Swahili to the students.
That coincidence ultimately led to the Cocoa Honors program funding the establishment of an Empowered Girls Club program at the Mwaya school in Tenende.
Kellen traveled to Tanzania with the students. The students returned a few days later; Kellen stayed to work.
She said it was not easy at first because the area is so remote.
"I asked (the students) who had radios at home," she said. "Very few had radios and those who did had tiny radios that their father would listen to. They have teaching programs on the radio, but the students did not have access."
Askinosie said Kellen is able to connect with the girls.
"She radiates a sweet spirit in such a way that you know it is from God before she even says one single word," Askinosie said. "This is the major reason that their work is so successful. The girls love her because she loves them. She gives the girls confidence and hope."
Kellen said she found teachers and student peer leaders who could carry the program forward without her while she returned to the states.
Kellen and Daudi will return to Tanzania this summer to see how the program is progressing at the two schools where it has been launched.
"We need to measure the successes," Daudi said.
While in Tanzania, they plan to start an Empowered Girls club at a third school near the village of Engaruka, where Daudi's father grew up.
They also expect to work with the students and some musicians to produce a Swahili pop song about girls overcoming problems.