Their home was a trailer, and they often went hungry. And, she says, her husband continued abusing her the way he had when they were still in Zimbabwe. There are many reasons why the world cannot get enough of Dr Tererai Trent’s story.
At age 11, she was forcibly married off by her father. By the time she was 18-years-old, she had four children.
And at 22 she still had not received any formal education as her father believed only males should go to school.
Despite all this, she refuses to portray herself as a victim.
Yes, she agrees that forced marriage constitutes rape. But she will not live her life as a victim. Rather she sees herself as part of the solution to the problem.
Which is why the humble lady from Hurungwe in Mashonaland West, didn’t only mix and mingle with Oprah Winfrey in 2011, but the talk show queen called her one of her all-time favourite guests in her programme’s 25-year history.
Even if the story is told a million times, it remains an inspiration. It’s an extraordinary story of an ordinary woman.
“Marrying off a girl at the age of 11 is not marriage at all, it is rape,” she asserts. “Often, people ask me how it felt. Honestly, how am I supposed to feel? It is horrible having four children by the age of 18. Honestly, what am I supposed to say? However, I maintain that I am not a victim; I am part of the solution.”
How does someone who has been put through such abuse remain calm and focused?
“I remember when I was 6-years-old, my aunt, Chida, would receive letters from her husband who worked in the city, but because she was illiterate, she needed someone to read the letters for her,” she told The Sunday Mail last week at her home in Harare’s leafy suburb of Mandara.
Donning a navy blue, plain dress and a matching doek, she takes us through her journey.
“Because boys were the literate ones, everyone turned to them for assistance when it came to reading and writing.
“Aunt Chida would approach three different boys to read the letter for her. I guess for her it was her own data triangulation method.
“However, by the time we returned to the village, the contents of her letter would be known by the whole village. I did not like that. So I told my mother that I wanted to go to school so that I would be able to read my letters.”
However, her father would only educate males.
Born in 1965, not only did a young Tererai face headwinds from racial discrimination, but misogyny was also rife in the colonial era.
Men such as Tererai’s father argued that it was futile educating girls as the perceived “investment” was likely to be lost once they were married.
Desperate to learn, she secretly did her brother Tinashe’s homework. Tinashe had taught her basic writing and reading.
Their secret was discovered by Tinashe’s teacher, who begged the siblings’ father to let Tererai attend school.
She was to go to school for just two terms before she was married off.
At 22, she was still uneducated, trapped in an abusive marriage and expecting her fifth child.
“I am glad the Zimbabwean Constitution is saying no to child marriages, because we cannot talk of a 14-year-old girl being married and we call it a marriage. It is rape!
“These girls are married off before they are able to define themselves. I come from this line of women who have been married very young before they could define the lives they wanted for themselves.
“My great grandmother was married to my great grandfather at a very young age – becoming the sixth wife. My grandmother was to follow the same path, married to grandfather and she was (the) fifth wife.
“My mother was very young when she also married my father and here I was following the same path of the women who came before. And what they were doing was to pass on the baton and creating a cycle of poverty and silence.”
Her life took a turn in 1991 when Heifer International, an NGO, visited her village.
“I used to see people from such organisations coming to our village. Many of them would wear spectacles, especially for reading. For me, spectacles were a sign of being educated. So I admired them,” she chuckled.
“So on that day, together with other women, we were rounded up by Jo Luck, Heifer International’s former president, and asked about our dreams.
“The other women talked about the education they wanted for their children and food sustenance at household level. She then turned to me and said ‘what are your dreams?’
“When I opened my mouth, I said I want to go to the United States, earn a Bachelor’s degree, a Masters degree and Doctorate.
“There was silence around me because the other women knew I did not have a high school diploma and I was expecting my fifth child.
“However, Jo Luck looked at me and said: ‘If you believe in your dreams, it is possible, your dreams are achievable.’ I ran home and told my mother.
“My mother said write down your dreams and bury them, the same way in our culture we bury the umbilical cord.
“Wherever you are in life, despite the challenges and difficulties, your dreams will always call you and remind you of who you are and what you want to become.”
That day, she wrote her dreams on a piece of paper, placed them in an old can and buried it under a rock.
It would take Tererai eight years to get her Ordinary Level certificate through correspondence.
In 1998, she moved to the United States with her husband and enrolled at Oklahoma University.
Their home was a trailer, and they often went hungry. And, she says, her husband continued abusing her the way he had when they were still in Zimbabwe.
That abuse resulted in his deportation back to Zimbabwe where he then passed away; while Tererai managed to earn a degree in Agricultural Sciences back in the US.
In 2003, she made another dream come true by earning a Masters in Agriculture Sciences.
After each degree, she would fly back to Zimbabwe to retrieve the can she had buried, take out the list, and tick off each dream achieved.
Six years later, Tererai got her PhD. And she started working on another dream – to make education accessible to all.
Somewhere along the line, she got married to Mark Trent.
In 2011, she received $1 million from Oprah Winfrey to build a school in her home village. Matau Primary School was completed in 2014.
To date, she has constructed and reconstructed several schools in her rural home and introduced community projects that empower girls and women. She has also sponsored the education of disadvantaged children.
Dr Trent is set to feature on Oprah Winfrey’s “Soul Sunday”, where they will discuss her new book, “Awakened Woman”, which has been translated into Spanish.
“It is not about an individual having an extraordinary story. It is about an ordinary individual willing to make the lives of the other people extraordinary,” Dr Trent says.
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