Born into a poor family in Zimbabwe, her fate was sealed – or so it seemed. As a girl, she was banned from going to school, although her brother was allowed to. But that did not stop Tererai Trent from learning to read and write on her own, and she soon was doing her brother’s homework for him. When the teacher came to know of this, she begged her father to allow the young girl to attend class as well. Her father relented and Tererai started to attend school, but only for a short while.
At the age of 11, her father married her off for the bride price of a cow. Life spiraled downhill as the man she married beat her often. It seemed that that was to be her lot in life, especially when she had three children by the age of 18.
Then destiny came knocking on her door, in the form of Jo Luck, former CEO of Heifer International, a charity organization working to end hunger and poverty around the world.
She encouraged the women in the village to stand up and take their lives in their own hands. She asked the women in Tererai’s village what their biggest dreams were. Tererai replied that hers was to go to the United States, to get a degree, a Master’s and a PhD. She had heard others speak of these things, although she hardly knew what they actually were, being so far removed from such possibilities. Encouraged by her mother, Tererai nonetheless wrote down these dreams of hers, put the paper in a scrap of tin and buried it in the ground.
“Tererai began to work for Heifer and several Christian organizations as a community organizer,” the New York Times reported. “She used the income to take correspondence courses, while saving every penny she could.”
In 1998, Oklahoma University accepted her application to enrol there. She insisted on taking her five children with her.
“I couldn’t abandon my kids,” she recalled. “I knew that they might end up getting married off.”
“Heifer helped with the plane tickets, Tererai’s mother sold a cow, and neighbors sold goats to help raise money,” the Times said. “With $4,000 in cash wrapped in a stocking and tied around her waist, Tererai set off for Oklahoma.”
Her dreams had come true – but soon the old devils emerged. Her husband refused to find work and started to beat her again. Tererai had to juggle between working 4 jobs and taking care of the children, while trying to attend school, all the while living in a ramshackle trailer with her family. Times were so bad she had to resort to scavenging in the trash for food.
“There was very little food,” she said. “The kids would come home from school, and they would be hungry.”
She had also fallen back on paying her fees for school and the university wanted to expel her.
“A university official, Ron Beer, intervened on her behalf and rallied the faculty and community behind her with donations and support,” the Times reported.
This was no dream, and she thought of quitting. But her rational mind told her otherwise – that she had been given an opportunity which other African women could only dream of. So, she soldiered on as best she could.
Things got better when her husband was deported to Zimbabwe for his constant abuse of her. Tererai soon graduated with her Bachelor’s degree – her first academic goal accomplished. She started on her Master’s.
Then her husband returned, now frail and sick with a disease that turned out to be AIDS. Tererai tested negative for H.I.V., and then — feeling sorry for her husband — she took in her former tormentor and nursed him as he grew sicker and eventually died.
Through all this blur of pressures, Tererai excelled at school, pursuing a Ph.D at Western Michigan University and writing a dissertation on AIDS prevention in Africa even as she began working for Heifer as a program evaluator. On top of all that, she was remarried, to Mark Trent, a plant pathologist she had met at Oklahoma State.
– New York Times
One thing led to another, it seemed like Providence finally had taken her under its wings. Her work and story were reported by the media and eventually reached Oprah Winfrey, the American billionaire talkshow host who is a media empire unto herself.
She invited Tererai to her show and said that the latter was her all-time favourite guest. That is a big complement, given that Oprah has had thousands of guests appear on her show through the decades.
Tererai’s work with children, and her effort to bring education to as many of them as she could, was given a huge boost when Oprah announced on her show that she was donating USD1.5 million to help Tererai build a school in her home village. Tererai had said it was time she gave back to her people, now that she has had the opportunities many of her fellow countrymen and women didn’t.
“I feel I have to give back,” she said on the Oprah Winfre show. “It is not just about Tererai. It is about the thousands and millions of children that are out there, thousands and millions of girls who do not have an education. I need to build a school in my village so that the same girls that I see today they don’t have to go through what I went through, and I think I can achieve that [to build a school.]”
With Oprah’s help, and collaboration with Save the Children, Tererai has now built 11 schools benefiting some 5,000 children in her village.
According to the Tererai International website of her foundation, Tererai is currently an adjunct professor in Monitoring & Evaluation in Global Health at Drexel University, School of Public Health. She is a senior consultant with more than 18 years of international experience in program and policy evaluation, and has worked on five continents for major humanitarian organizations. As a fellow at the Center of AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) at UC San Francisco, she conducted research on HIV prevention in Sub Saharan Africa with a special focus on women and girls. (Her husband had contracted AIDs and had gone to Tererai who cared for him in his last days.)
Today, Dr. Tererai is invited to speak all over the world, to share her remarkable story and the valuable lessons she has learned along the way. She was a keynote speaker at the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit where she used her growing voice to appeal to international businesses to invest in equal access to quality education. Leading the global charge in the fight for quality education for all children and women’s rights. Tererai has become a symbol of hope for everyone, and living proof that anything is possible. Her favorite motto is “Tinogona,” meaning, “It is achievable!”
Her’s is an amazing story of sheer grit, of believing that dreams do happen if you stick with it and don’t give up. But what’s more – that after having achieved her dreams, she felt it was important for her to help others achieve theirs through education, empowering even the very young.
Here is the short clip from her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show: