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Tererai Triumphs from the Shadows into the Spotlight

By Donna Strong


In 1991, Tererai Trent was one among many millions of women in the Third World, living on the edge with the stark reality of hunger and abuse. A turning point occurred for Tererai the day Jo Luck came to her village. Jo brought the word of Heifer International, a nonprofit with a pragmatic and profound program of economic and social empowerment that is transforming lives and communities. Jo is the busy leader of Heifer, but that day she was a messenger bringing hope, through planting the seeds of possibility as she sat in the circle of women. It was a pivotal time for Tererai, for this was the day she mustered the courage to voice her unspoken dreams of coming to America and getting an education. Today Tererai has emerged from the abuse she suffered in the past and has entered the spotlight as an educated and empowered woman. Making a tremendous leap from her remote village in Zimbabwe, Tererai has finally fulfilled the ‘impossible dreams’ she first voiced nearly two decades ago sitting in the circle with her mother, her village sisters and Jo Luck.
In December 2009, she graduated with a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, a stunning achievement that has come true through the strength of her spirit. A guest on Oprah last October, Tererai’s personal vision of economic sustainability through education is now being transformed into a larger mission, to work on behalf of women who are not yet able to speak for themselves and be heard. The gift of inspiration and respect Jo brought to her village is being given again, as Tererai steps forward now as an emissary. Tererai knows, as deeply as her pain, that without others who cared, such as her wise mother and Jo, her dreams would not have been realized. It is in joining with others that we have the strength to maintain momentum and to accomplish what seems impossible. Tererai is a woman who has earned not only a Ph.D., she has earned the admiration of those who hear her story. For all she has experienced, Tererai shines brightly as a candle of inspiration and hope for us all. Salute Tererai! Each time one of us is able to express the deep secrets that keep us bound, there is a quantum resonance wave of freedom that we all share. Now is the time to become more engaged in our own circles of care, and let the experiences that have kept us frozen in fear be dissolved in the light of the New Year’s dawning. As we begin 2010, may our care be the catalyst to create a world of good.
Awareness: This is definitely a case of ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’ You have certainly lived that Tererai, so I just want to acknowledge you.
Tererai: Thank you, but you know, I could not have done it by myself. There’s my mother, who is such an inspiration to my life. I also had many others who crossed my path and was fortunate to have individuals who really believed in me.
Awareness: I really resonate with what you said about your mother, because I attribute so much of the good of who I am to my own mother, a very humble woman who was tremendously powerful because she had a noble spirit.
Tererai: That’s wonderful — it sounds like my mother also.
Awareness: I have felt so very touched with how your mother and some caring people stood by you, so you could go forward in your life despite some very harsh circumstances.
Tererai: You know, at times we come across people who may be harsh, but if you listen closely, sometimes you may discern something you can learn. For me, that really helped. I appreciated that behind the negativity, those individuals are also victims, and they have a message you can learn from.
Awareness: So you basically met whatever life offered. How remarkable that whether it was difficult and challenging, or supportive and nurturing, you were able to find a way to move forward.
Tererai: I never let difficult circumstances define me. My mother always said to me, “despite all of the difficult things that are in front of you, tap into the woman in you and say this is who I am.” That really helped me even when I was in circumstances where I felt really marginalized.
Awareness: That’s pure wisdom not to let challenging circumstances define us in the moment. Your mother’s words are very clear and that you utilized her understanding is quite clear also. Can you tell us a bit about what was so difficult when you were a young woman living in your village?
Tererai: One thing that was very difficult was the abuse I went through with my ex-husband. He was a very harsh and strict man. To be beaten up and have no decision making was very difficult. As individuals we want our dignity, we want a relationship where we are loved and respected. To have someone beat and insult you outside where everyone can see was so hard for me. After being beaten I was expected to go out and interact and the humiliation was just too much. Zimbabwe has been one of the societies where patriarchy is mixed with culturally entrenched gender roles, causing women to be seen more as objects because they are bought with a bride price. I have refrained from talking about the rape that goes on in marriages where bride price is used to gain a woman because like most women we want to protect our kids. I also felt, and still feel that I want to protect my kids from questioning themselves and asking, “Am I a product of rape?” No child would want to feel that way. These are some of the things that were so difficult. I didn’t even know what lovemaking was up until I met the man I am married to now. I did know that I was being both physically and emotionally abused. Unfortunately, I had to stay in that marriage because I wanted to protect my children. Culturally people don’t talk about those things, but my mother would just say, “I know what you’re going through, but the woman in you is strong enough, and since you want an education desperately, I do not think your life will end up just like me.” That was when I realized that my mother and most women were also going through the same experience.
Awareness: I want you to know that I admire what you have faced and the light of spirit that shines in your face.
Tererai: It’s not easy to talk about these things. When you read in Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, there are certain things women won’t speak about because we have children who we are still protecting. But these things need to be talked about so our children can also be aware. One of the things that can play a fundamental role in change is education. The more women and girls are educated, the more they make choices, and can say “No, I don’t want that,” because they would have the economic and social security to defend themselves from abuse. My ex-husband was very jealous of even very minor things. He tried to oppress me so that I felt like I had no voice, but something in me wanted to say, ‘no you have a voice, keep going.’ The more I did that though, the more I suffered. Also, he was a womanizer and didn’t hide the fact that he was sleeping with other women. It was so painful and humiliating, and I didn’t know what to do, but my mother would always say, “you know what? Education is probably the only way that women and girls have to defend themselves from such indignity and humiliation.
Awareness: Your mother is a very wise woman. May I ask her name?
Tererai: Her name is Shamiso. You know, when I came to this country, I really admired relationships between mothers and daughters and mothers and children. I really admire that there is a lot of hugging and expressing love. In my culture love is expressed in different ways and there is less hugging. Despite this, I knew my mother loved me more than anything else. It was expressed in different ways, in the values she expected me to live by, even though I failed (chuckle) and I still fail, but the values she has raised me with still ring so true to me as I raise my own children.
Awareness: Words are very powerful and it sounds like your mother was able to express her deep care and wisdom through words, as well as her presence.Let me ask you about the word tinogona in your village…
Tererai: A phrase like tinogona is a phrase that is used to refer to the empowering of men; it was never a phrase that was seen fitting for women. Among the men, it is an empowering phrase meaning that something is achievable by a person who is expected to have the power to lead, a breadwinner who can do it. So for women and girls to have that, it has an empowering effect that says yes, you can do it and I believe in you.
Awareness: So when Jo came to the village and used this phrase with the women sitting in the circle, it must have been startling, but in a good way.
Tererai: Oh yes. A woman’s role in the household within most developing countries has never been appreciated and this is very much so in my village. A farmer is a man. Despite the fact that most of the farming is done by women, as well as raising children and doing chores in the kitchen, women’s jobs have never been given a value. For someone to use the tinogona phrase, and at the same time put a value to the chores that have never been recognized, was so powerful. It was one of those discussions that were rare, especially during that time, and it raised a lot of hopes in us to have someone recognize the importance of women’s work and saying you can step up and do the things you need to achieve in your life.
Awareness: What kind of effect did Jo’s message have among the women in the circle — did they talk about it?
Tererai: Oh yes, for a long time. The women were talking about food insecurity at the household level and the struggles to buy uniforms for their children, and they also talked about wanting their girls to attend school but it was difficult. So after the Jo Luck discussion that day, women were saying to each other, “Is she real?” At the same time they were saying, “Yes, because of her ability to have a presence that women acknowledged as a real person who was not only listening to what we were saying, but sharing other experiences and making us believe that as women we are already making a difference by the way we raise our children and do all our chores. I think it was a defining moment for most of the women who had felt badly because they don’t bring in any income, so they were not contributing economically to the household. Just hearing it from an outsider made a huge impact on us.
Awareness: I can feel what a defining moment it was. It is true that when we are really willing to sit down and be open to others, it is amazing what can happen our lives.
Tererai: Yes, and Jo came in more of a listener than a teacher. For Heifer to sit down and ask our opinions as women and listen without lecturing was so phenomenal. Jo came in as an older wise sister and just shared,” I have two children, how many do you have?” Her ability to listen to every woman in that circle and then share Heifer work and experiences of other women in different parts of the world inspired us. She made us feel we were not alone in our struggles by telling us that there are millions of women and mothers in similar situations, and Heifer was making a difference in the lives of many women. Then she said, ‘it is achievable if you believe in your dreams.”
Awareness: I have a big smile on my face from the beauty of what you’re sharing.
Tererai: You know, when I discuss these things in this country, at times it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you are in Africa, and especially a country like Zimbabwe that at the time had just gained its independence from the British, it really made a huge difference. In our village we had never interacted with white people like this, where someone sits down on the ground with us, and Jo never hesitated to dip her fingers into whatever we were eating. In my culture it speaks big for someone to come in and join with you and eat with you.
Awareness: We know if someone is joining with us or not.
Tererai: When we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and be there for them, the other person will always feel, yes, I have met a soul sister here.
Awareness: You really have lived with so many challenges and you are able to speak so clearly about them, it is remarkable. I also wanted to ask about the rock where you placed your paper with your dreams written on it.
Tererai: That rock kept the promise. The last time I was home with the Oprah Winfrey show, I said to my mother, “if I graduate I don’t think I’m going to be buried here.” And my mother said, “yeah, so what are you going to do with the rock?” And I said, “what do you expect me to do with it?” (chuckle) So she said, “depending on where you want to be buried,” and I knew in my heart of hearts that I would like to have that rock as part of my tombstone. You know my mother, she always says, Mother Earth is a giver and Mother Earth is a taker and we should always respect her. We don’t know when she will give or when she will take, but what we know for sure is that she holds promises and she holds life. Because of so many stories that my mother and grandmother had shared, I never doubted her powers.
Awareness: That feels profound. Our discussion of the rock brings me back to one of the things I wanted to acknowledge. You could have written something simpler, as you had indicated, but you expressed what was really deeply in your heart and it was a very sacred moment. The rock where you buried the paper had a purpose to remind you to go forward until your dreams were realized. It is quite a compelling story to have written something down and called forth spiritual support to propel the dreams into life, and you knew that the agreement was irrevocable.
Tererai: It’s interesting because my mother said, “You agree within yourself and you make promises within, and if you do not challenge yourself to fulfill that agreement, how dare you look yourself in the mirror.”
Awareness: When we are in touch with the integrity and core of who we are, we do what your mother was talking about, we fulfill our promises. I just had a visual sense of how that core is what we call here in the West, of getting down to the ‘rock,’ because the core of who we are is solid and strong, the way a rock is.
Tererai: Yes! My mother said, “Everything in your life may tumble or wobble, but the rock will solidify everything.” I think it is so true, there were times when I wanted to give up — it was just too much and especially when my husband turned out to be HIV positive. I said “That’s it, “I’m done.” I remember going to sleep though and I would see my mother and that rock and “say, no, I don’t need to give up.” I felt like the rock was looking at me and saying, “how dare you do that! I’m here, don’t you remember me?” These are things that helped to ground me.
My mother’s powerful words and the sacred agreement I had made, kept me going when things were hard. It was a secret between myself and the rock. I knew I would be letting down something that was so important in my life. My mother Shamiso would say, “you’re going to be the last person in this vicious circle of poverty when you finally break the cycle.”
You know, my mother is not a rich woman, she is very poor, but she gave me an inheritance. The next generation of this family, they are not going to have the experience that I, or my mother or grandmother did. No way! We will right the wrongs. Giving children in marriage is wrong. Genital mutilation is wrong for women.
Awareness: I’m really glad for the wisdom your mother Shamiso has shared with you. When we hear these stories, somehow they call us to realize what is in our own hearts as well. I know the story you have shared will be with me.
Tererai: About my story, what I really want it to be about is the importance of educating girls and women who are marginalized, to empower them and have their voices heard so we can build a more equitable society. The world is becoming much more of a global village, so we all belong in this big circle…
Awareness: Speaking of the global village, this reminds me of the African proverb, that ‘it takes a village’ to raise a child. This saying was popularized here by the current Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. As you so rightfully indicated, that village is now becoming more global…
Tererai: In my own life, an American woman named Jo Luck first planted a seed that inspired me, and then my mother with no formal education took that inspiration to a different level.
This makes me believe in the African saying so eloquently captured by Nelson Mandela; “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which roughly translates to “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Hence, it is through others that we can achieve our dreams.

For more information, visit: www.heifer.org, or call (800) 696-1918.

Donna Strong is a writer and creative catalyst. She can be reached at www.donnastrong.com