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Meet the woman Oprah called her ‘all time favourite interview’

Dr Tererai Trent knows education is key to empowering girls in her native Africa. She knows, because it worked for her – a mum of six sold into marriage at 11.

Dr Tererai Trent is Oprah Winfrey’s “all-time favourite interview”. In fact, Oprah was so moved by the Zimbabwean humanitarian’s remarkable story that she donated a huge sum to support Trent’s mission to educate women and girls in developing nations.

Speaking to NEXT ahead of her March visit to New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the Worldwomen17 conference, Trent’s voice swells with passion as she defines education as “the equaliser” and says women can only truly be empowered if they support each another.

“There are 62 million girls globally who are not attending school,” says the 51-year-old scholar. “Education has a fundamental role in enabling women to be empowered socially and economically.

“My mother made me realise that throughout life we are climbing an invisible ladder and, as women, when we are up there on a rung of the ladder, we have a moral responsibility and obligation to look around and uplift other women. That’s what defines success, not the individualistic ideals that are practised in so much of the Western world and now in third world countries. Instead, it’s our collectiveness as a society and our collectiveness as women that is going to make us more successful.”

This rallying call by Trent and other female world leaders is resonating loudly as the global fight for true and complete gender equality heats up. Trent believes that now more than ever, women need to rise up and become role models for younger generations.

“Education is the main pathway out of all the disparities that we see. I grew up during the war [the Zimbabwe War of Liberation], and I remember one freedom fighter saying to me, ‘To educate is to empower and to liberate so that an individual can live to their maximum potential.’”

Trent knows first-hand just how powerful education can be. As a 10-year-old, dreaming of a better future, she buried a piece of paper in a can beneath a tree in her village. On the paper she’d scribbled four dreams; she’d heard them talked about by famous Africans.

They were: 1) To move abroad. 2) To get a bachelor’s degree. 3) To achieve a master’s. 4) To get a PhD.

When she buried her dreams, her mother gave her advice that continues to drive her today.

“[She] said something that was very profound: ‘Your dreams will have more meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community.’ It tied my personal dreams to the greater good.”

Home today is the same rural village of Matau where she grew up and was “married off for a cow” at the age of 11. It’s also where she gave birth to her six children – four girls and two boys – and was regularly beaten and abused by her husband.

“When I got married, my husband [exchanged] a cow, and this is still happening throughout Africa. Women get married and the man pays a cow for the ‘bride price’. Exchanged for a freakin’ cow? We women are priceless and I didn’t want my own kids to go through that.”

In fact, having faced numerous odds – not least poverty and abuse – Trent is a woman who has achieved the unthinkable. Although she didn’t have the chance to be educated as a young girl, she did get the opportunity to work for aid organisation Heifer International and several Christian organisations as a community organiser. She used the income to take correspondence courses, while saving as much money as she could, and in 1998 was accepted into Oklahoma State University.

Heifer helped with the plane tickets, Trent’s mother sold a cow and neighbours sold goats to help raise money. With $4000 in cash wrapped in a stocking tied around her waist, Trent set off for Oklahoma, taking her children and, reluctantly, her husband with her.

The family lived in a trailer and money was scarce. Most nights when Trent came home from university, her husband would beat her, and she was almost expelled for falling behind on her tuition fees.

“There was very little food – the kids would come home from school and be hungry,” she says.

The family survived on fruit and vegetable scraps from Walmart, which a friend would leave in a box next to the dumpster. Meanwhile, a university official, Ron Beer, realised Trent’s plight and rallied the community to help with her university fees. Habitat For Humanity found the family suitable housing.

On earning her bachelor’s degree in science, Trent had her abusive husband deported to Zimbabwe. Continuing to ace her courses, she gained a PhD at Western Michigan University and wrote a dissertation on Aids prevention in Africa. She fell in love and married plant pathologist Mark Trent, whom she met at Oklahoma State, and together they created the stable home life she had so wanted for her children.

Trent had finally achieved those buried dreams.

It speaks volumes about the strength of Trent’s compassion that when her abuser was diagnosed with Aids, she flew him back to America and helped nurse him until his death. Today, she’s known as one of Africa’s leading humanitarians.

The fire in Trent’s belly that was lit by her mother, who passed away in 2013, continues to propel her advocacy work.

“I always talk about the two hungers we have,” she says. “The little hunger driven by attention, greed and fame, and the great hunger for a meaningful life. When you get that hunger, it has to collide with opportunities, mentorship and connectedness, because as an individual, you can’t do it all.”

The mission of the Tererai Trent International Foundation is to provide all children with “universal access to quality education, regardless of their gender or socio-economic backgrounds”.

Today, the foundation is working alongside the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and Save the Children to create 10 new schools in rural Zimbabwe over the next 10 years.

Trent speaks proudly of her own daughters’ achievements: one is a mechanical engineer and another has recently completed a biomedical degree and remains passionate about educating girls in her village so they too can help other women.

Two years ago, after Trent received $1.5 million from Oprah to rebuild the school in her childhood village, Matau Primary School opened and has improved learning conditions for more than 5000 students.

“Education changes and redefines our lives because it makes us realise we can achieve our dreams when we get that education,” says Trent.

“The proudest moment I have had was when an old man walked up to me holding his eight-year-old daughter’s hand and said, ‘Tererai, can she be just like you?’ In that moment I realised that not only had I been able to provide education for the community, but that we have transformed the community to believe in the empowerment of girls and women.

“The men are now seeing the need to educate girls and women because they have seen I have brought education back to the community and not many men have done the same.

“So if they can see that women can go to America and come back with this gift, they realise they need to educate more girls. That moment solidified everything I’d believed in.”

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Words: Kylie Bailey

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