Story by Janika Carey | SBC photos by Meridith De Avila Khan
Some called it a magical evening. But it wasn’t just the speech, or the glow of the October sunset that filled Memorial Chapel. After sharing her life story with an enthralled audience, Tererai Trent, who had spoken at a United Nations summit just days before, mingled with students, faculty and staff at an intimate reception in Pannell Gallery. She answered questions, shared laughs, and hugged and took pictures with everyone around her.
“I love her! I want to be her when I grow up,” said Jordyn Elliott ’17, one of 10 students invited to attend a special dinner with Trent and President Parker before the lecture at Sweet Briar House.
Trent was visiting Sweet Briar as the College’s annual Common Reading speaker. Her story is featured in the book selected for the 2013-2014 program, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”
Designed to spark discussion across the disciplines between students, faculty and staff, the Common Reading book is part of the College’s selective first-year program y:1 and is read in each of the five y:1 classes. This year, it also accompanied Sweet Briar’s first participation in the microlending program Kiva, with first-year honors and y:1 students making loans to small entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Trent was impressed with the students.
“They are so bright, it is mind-blowing,” she said after the dinner, referring to the first-years’ grasp of global issues. She brought it up again in her speech.
“I realized tonight that these young women are going to be the champions of our world,” Trent announced, adding that speaking at a women’s college was a rare, but welcome opportunity to share her story.
Religion professor and y:1 director Cathy Gutierrez introduced Trent, poignantly summing up the central theme of the book.
“A single moment of intervention can be transformative,” Gutierrez said. “It all starts with the education of women.”
Trent’s story of transformation began in the early 1990s, when Heifer International came to her village in Zimbabwe. In the aftermath of its successful fight for independence, Zimbabwe was inundated with American and European aid organizations. Heifer’s president, Jo Luck, asked Trent a simple question:
“What are your dreams?”
A cattle-herder and young mother of three, Trent had never really thought about what she wanted in life at all. But she knew what she didn’t want.
Growing up, she had witnessed what illiteracy did to the women in her village. Her aunt, having received a letter from her husband, would have to find someone who could read it to her. Not trusting just one person, she’d ask three different men to read the letter. By the time she was done, there were no secrets left — everyone in the village knew exactly what her husband had written.
Trent promised herself then that she would read her own letters.
But it wasn’t common for girls to go to school, so Trent taught herself to read and write by secretly doing her brother’s homework. Eventually, after begging her father, she attended school for less than a year. It all stopped when she was married at 11, to a husband who beat her every time she picked up a book.
“I wanted to be able to read, to be able to define who I am,” she says today. “I was hungry for a meaningful life.”
So when Luck asked about her dreams, something clicked. Trent knew that what she wanted more than anything was to get an education. Other women were wishing for enough food or for their children to be educated.
“If I go to school, I can educate my own kids,” she told them.
Her mother supported her.
“If you believe in this dream, you are not only going to define yourself, but every life that comes out of your womb,” she said.
There is a Zimbabwean tradition in which mothers bury their babies’ umbilical cords near the family hut to remind them of their birthplace. Trent’s mother suggested she do the same with her dreams.
On a scrap of paper, Trent scribbled “Go to America,” “Get a bachelor’s degree,” “Get a master’s degree” and “Get a Ph.D.”
But her mother wouldn’t let her stop there.
“Your dreams will have greater meaning if you include others,” she said.
Today, Trent knows what her mother meant.
“She told me that I could break the cycle,” she says.
So she added a fifth goal — she would come back to Zimbabwe and help other women fulfill their own dreams. Then she stuck her list in a tin can and buried it under a rock outside her village.
By 1998, Trent had completed her GED and was admitted to Oklahoma State University. Her job as a community organizer for Heifer International, combined with a favorable exchange rate, provided enough money to buy airfare for her entire family. Fueled by the promise of a better future, they set off for America.
At the other end of the world, life wasn’t as glamorous as expected. Between rent, tuition, bills and groceries, it was much more complicated than life in Zimbabwe. But Trent persevered. Raising five kids, working three jobs and eating expired food from a Walmart trashcan, she managed to earn a bachelor’s, and later a master’s degree in epidemiology.
Every time she reached a new goal, Trent returned home, dug up her can and checked it off her list.
In 2009, she received her Ph.D. in interdisciplinary evaluation from Western Michigan University.
Since then, Trent has spoken to audiences around the world. Spending most of her time away from her home in Salinas, Calif., she travels extensively to advocate AIDS research and women’s education in developing countries, especially in Africa.
Often, the two issues overlap, Trent noted in her speech, saying that U.N. reports have found a striking correlation between illiteracy and the rate of HIV-infected women and girls. Similarly, she added, women’s education is imperative in combating overpopulation, a growing problem in many developing countries.
In the end, the solution is simple, Trent says.
“The world will be a better place if we educate more women.”
But as recent U.N. reports have shown, reality isn’t cooperating — not just when it comes to the education of girls, but of all children. In 2000, the U.N. set eight Millennium Development Goals — one of them was to have every child in school by 2015. Thirteen years later, the number of elementary school-age children getting an education has instead dropped significantly, with 57 million not in school at all as of September 2013.
Trent is doing what she can to change that number.
In addition to speaking on the issue of education, she has devoted a big part of her life to improving conditions on the ground for children in Zimbabwe. But she couldn’t have done it alone, she says.
A phone call from Oprah Winfrey in 2009 — “the most important phone call of my life” — helped Trent to keep her promise of giving back. That year, Oprah’s team traveled to Zimbabwe with Trent to document her story, and in 2011, Oprah crowned Trent her “all-time favorite guest,” donating $1.5 million to Trent’s organization Tinogona to help rebuild Matau Primary School in her home village.
Today, the project is complete, and Trent is building eight more schools in Zimbabwe.
“As long as I’m alive, I will do more,” she promised, her eyes sparkling with determination.
There wasn’t a speck of doubt in anyone’s mind.
As Trent wrapped up her story, images of her most painful memories seemed to fade away. In the end, there was optimism, and the contagious urge to follow one’s dreams — however big or small they might be. It’s exactly what Trent intended. Instead of dwelling on the dark moments in her past, she wants people to focus on the positives — what she has accomplished, and what is yet to come.
“This is a story of hope,” she said. “I’m not a victim, but I’m part of the solution. … I’m the master of my own future. … I’ll never keep silent, because I believe in the power of education and I believe in the power of women.”