Triumph of a dreamer in Zimbabwe

Jo Luck (CEO of Heifer International), Oprah Winfrey and Tererai Trent

Any time anyone tells you that a dream is impossible, any time you’re discouraged by impossible challenges, just mutter this mantra: “Tererai Trent”.

Of all the people earning university degrees this year, perhaps the most remarkable story belongs to Tererai (pronounced TEH-reh-rye), a middle-aged woman who is one of my heroes. She is celebrating a personal triumph, but she’s also a monument to the aid organisations and individuals who helped her. When you hear that foreign-aid groups just squander money or build dependency, remember that by all odds Tererai should be an illiterate, battered cattle-herd in Zimbabwe and instead — ah, but I’m getting ahead of my story.

Tererai was born in a village in rural Zimbabwe, probably sometime in 1965, and attended elementary school for less than one year. Her father married her off when she was about 11 to a man who beat her regularly. She seemed destined to be one more squandered African asset.

A dozen years passed. Jo Luck, the head of an aid group called Heifer International, passed through the village and told the women there that they should stand up, nurture dreams, change their lives.

Inspired, Tererai scribbled down four absurd goals based on accomplishments she had vaguely heard of among famous Africans. She wrote that she wanted to study abroad, and to earn a BA, a master’s and a doctorate.

Tererai began to work for Heifer and several Christian organisations as a community organiser. She used the income to take correspondence courses, while saving every penny she could.

In 1998 she was accepted to Oklahoma State University, but she insisted on taking all five of her children with her rather than leave them with her husband. “I couldn’t abandon my kids,” she recalled. “I knew that they might end up getting married off.”
Tererai’s husband eventually agreed that she could take the children to America — as long as he went too. Heifer helped with the plane tickets, Tererai’s mother sold a cow, and neighbours sold goats to help raise money. With $4,000 in cash wrapped in a stocking and tied around her waist, Tererai set off for Oklahoma.

An impossible dream had come true, but it soon looked like a nightmare. Tererai and her family had little money and lived in a ramshackle trailer, shivering and hungry. Her husband refused to do any housework — he was a man! — and coped by beating her.

“There was very little food,” she said. “The kids would come home from school, and they would be hungry.” Tererai found herself eating from trash cans, and she thought about quitting — but felt that doing so would let down other African women.

The struggle

“I knew that I was getting an opportunity that other women were dying to get,” she recalled. So she struggled on, holding several jobs, taking every class she could, washing and scrubbing, enduring beatings, barely sleeping.

At one point the university tried to expel Tererai for falling behind on tuition payments. A university official, Ron Beer, intervened on her behalf and rallied the faculty and community behind her with donations and support.

“I saw that she had enormous talent,” Beer said. His church helped with food, Habitat for Humanity provided housing, and a friend at Wal-Mart carefully put expired fruits and vegetables in boxes beside the Dumpster and tipped her off.
Soon afterward, Tererai had her husband deported back to Zimbabwe for beating her, and she earned her BA — and started on her MA. Then her husband returned, now frail and sick with a disease that turned out to be AIDS. Tererai tested negative for HIV, 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 PhD at Western Michigan University and writing a dissertation on AIDS prevention in Africa even as she began working for Heifer as a programme evaluator. On top of all that, she was remarried, to Mark Trent, a plant pathologist she had met at Oklahoma State.

Tererai is a reminder of the adage that talent is universal, while opportunity is not. There are still 75 million children who are not attending primary school around the world. We could educate them all for far less than the cost of the proposed military ‘surge’ in Afghanistan.

Each time Tererai accomplished one of those goals that she had written long ago, she checked it off on that old, worn paper. Last month, she ticked off the very last goal, after successfully defending her dissertation. She’ll receive her PhD next month, and so a one-time impoverished cattle-herd from Zimbabwe with less than a year of elementary school education will don academic robes and become Dr Tererai Trent.

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