Dr. Tererai Trent: Rising From The Ashes To A Life That is Greater

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This interview was originally published in Radiant No. 14, The Rebirth Issue

Decades before Dr. Tererai Trent became globally recognized as a women’s empowerment and education advocate, as well as Oprah Winfrey’s all-time favorite guest, she was a girl born in rural Zimbabwe, impoverished and with practically no formal education. For the bride price of a cow, she was traded into marriage at the age of 11 to a physically abusive man. And she spent 12 years in that reality, bearing five children—three by the age of 18—and losing one pregnancy to miscarriage.

When Heifer International, a global nonprofit working to eradicate poverty, visited her village, Tererai met the organization’s president and was inspired to break free of the generational poverty that had existed in her family for the last three generations. She dared to dream five sacred dreams and launched a journey to realize them, which began with working as a community organizer with Heifer International and saving as much of her earnings as she could. Having taught herself to read and write, she applied to Oklahoma State University in the United States and was accepted. With support from family and neighbors, Tererai went to the school in America, taking her children and husband with her.

Her husband’s ongoing abuse eventually got him arrested and sent right back to Zimbabwe. Hence, Tererai found herself alone in a foreign land with five children, all but broke, living in squalor and surviving off of discarded food. Still, she persevered and received help along the way. There was the university official who gathered donations to help with Tererai’s tuition. The church that provided food. The housing provided by Habitat for Humanity.

Eventually, Tererai achieved her first four sacred dreams: study abroad, a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts, and a Ph.D. And while doing so, she managed to provide end-of-life care for her husband, who’d returned to America from Zimbabwe after being diagnosed with AIDS.

Dr. Trent’s fifth sacred dream was to build a school in Zimbabwe. In 2009 she launched what would come to be known as Tererai Trent International, a foundation dedicated to the vision of equal opportunity and quality education for all. Two years later, Oprah donated $1.5 million to Dr. Trent, who completed construction on the school in 2014.

Dr. Trent has since spoken before the United Nations on multiple occasions, written The Awakened Woman: Remembering & Reigniting Our Sacred Dreams, built and refurbished several more schools in Zimbabwe, and spread a truly inspiring message of self-empowerment and self-reinvention. Her story, perseverance, and desire to live and speak for more than just herself easily made her one of the first ten women to be honored with a life-sized statue as a part of the global Statues for Equality project.

Radiant Health Magazine was fortunate to grab a moment to speak with Dr. Trent in advance of her statue’s unveiling in New York. And during our conversation, we learned even more about her amazing journey as well as the creative force for good that resides within us all.

Radiant Health: First, I wanted to congratulate you on your statue. What an honor!

Dr. Tererai Trent: Oh, my goodness, it’s unbelievable. Sometimes I close my eyes and think to myself, Really? Is this happening? I always think of my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. Among these three women, there was a baton of poverty and a baton of silence being passed down from one to another. I decided not to take on that baton of silence and carry a different baton so I can pass that on to my beautiful daughters. And now getting a statue is just beyond my imagination.

RH: I had the pleasure of reading your book, The Awakened Woman. Toward the beginning of it, you share a story that your grandmother told you about the importance of finding what best resonates with your soul. You also cited examples of different women arriving at a point in their lives where they had a very specific hunger beyond what your grandmother described as “little hungers.” You story is a perfect example of moving toward a bigger, heart-centered desire. You could not simply stop at escaping an abusive marriage or educating yourself or creating a better life and future for your children. You also had to reach your fifth sacred dream of helping your community in Zimbabwe. Why was it so necessary for you to pursue and find that hunger that truly resonated with your soul?

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Dr. Trent: When we attach a higher purpose to our lives, we live a life that is greater. I truly believe that those who are not finding their purpose, they end up getting more concerned with the little hungers. Drug abuse, prostitution, and other things. In the book, I wrote about our inner good being connected with our outer good. This hunger that I have is also coming from my own wounding as a woman, because not only did I want to get an education, but I also realized that I needed to help others. When one of us is being silenced, there are also a ton of us being silenced as well. My mother told me that I wouldn’t find happiness and joy until my purpose was bigger than myself. That’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.

RH: From the moment you buried your dreams to the moment you received funding to accomplish your fifth sacred dream—the purpose that was greater than yourself—20 years elapsed. So many of us have the false impression that success happens overnight or that the path is supposed to be easy if it is indeed meant to happen. In reality, however, there are many complications. There are moments of self-doubt. There are times when a situation may seem impossible to overcome. You experienced those moments and you kept going. In another interview you described this type of adversity as a gift. How did you come to have such a view of adversity and what would you say to those who have trouble viewing challenges in that way?

Dr. Trent: It is very difficult when you are facing challenges, but look at it this way. You have to shine light on your challenges in order to realize whether or not you are living the life that you want. Without challenges, we’d never truly be able to recognize the strength that we all have. With challenges, we learn a lot and we gain a lot of experience. I want women to embrace their challenges and embrace their vulnerabilities because it is through these things that we gain the light we need to change our lives.

RH: Your story is so important for this issue because the way you changed your life is a bright, shining example of rebirth and reinvention. Your rebirth wasn’t just for yourself and your country but for women all around the world, and we are in awe of and inspired by that.

As you experienced this rebirth, you did not achieve your new state of being on your own. There was help along the way. We often forget that just as we are not born alone, we don’t experience rebirth alone either. What would you say to those who may believe that facing transformation is a lonely journey?

Dr. Trent: Just to go back to adversity. Every pregnant mother goes through labor pains, which is part of the challenge. But in the end, they go through the pain and receive a beautiful baby in most cases.

The rebirth of who I am today was never an easy process. It was very challenging. But I carried on. The school project brought in people who were in harmony with my dreams. And as I always say, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I stand on the shoulders of those who looked straight into my eyes and saw something that I wasn’t seeing. It is important for women to reconnect ourselves to those who support us. And to run away from toxic environments because we need to be cheered. We need people who believe in us. We need friends for life who can say yes, it’s doable. Yes, any problem, we can deal with it.

RH: That is absolutely beautiful. Earlier in our conversation, you talked about not remaining silent. In your book, you talk about being vocal. In previous interviews you’ve talked about being vocal about issues and being vocal about solutions as well. You also talk about ululation, writing down your dreams, writing down thanks, and talking about various forms of expression. And so yes, it makes perfect sense that you’ve partnered with global Swedish design and stationery company kikki-K to launch a line of journals and stationery that supports your mission. Why is speaking out and expressing oneself in all of these various ways so vital to positive change and growth?

Dr. Trent: If we learn to reclaim or own voices, then we allow others to tell their stories. And I encourage women in every way conceivable to share their stories. Whatever it is, if that is what you want to tell the world, just share it. Because [your story] is a part of our healing. As we work on our issues, there remains these wounds within us. And when we cry out, when we share our stories—whether they are stories of joy or stories of pain—we are helping others who may be going through the same situation as we are. It’s always important for women, or for anyone, to share their stories. And that way we can help someone give a narrative to their own stories.

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RH: You also talk about various rituals. You discuss rituals all throughout your book and explain how important they are to reconnecting mind, body, and soul to the collective creative force that exists within us, within our sisterhood, and in the world around us. The word “ritual” can sometimes invoke a wariness in some because they don’t understand its purpose or its use. But you articulate ritual in such a clear and relatable ways. Why did you feel it was so important to include rituals in your book?

Dr. Trent: When you think about an organization or any society, a church or a corporation, there are certain rules they abide by. That’s what grounds them. That’s what brings them together. Some may call them “habits” but I use the word “ritual.” Everything that I do is based on ritual. When I wake up in the morning, I practice a set of rituals that will ground me for the day. I really think that we need to go back to the source. Why hide away from the rituals that will ground us? Like meditation. If you can do it on a daily basis or whenever you have the time to do it, make sure you ritualize those processes, because that’s what will ground you.

RH: For anyone who has been following you, we’ve seen you speak before the UN and, of course, talk to Oprah and receive this amazing gift from her to establish a school in Zimbabwe. When I first heard about your realizing your school, I didn’t understand the depth and breadth of what you were doing until I dug a little deeper. From the number of lives you’ve touched to the implications of your work, could you please describe what kind of impact your partnership with Oprah and all that you have done has made?

Dr. Trent: The partnership with Oprah has truly changed the trajectory of my life and the lives of women and children in my community. Today we have 11 schools and we’re rebuilding 12 schools in Zimbabwe. In excess of 38,000 students have gone through our schools. Before the partnership with Oprah, the schools were dilapidated and sometimes there wasn’t even a structure. Many kids couldn’t attend the school because there were no resources. Unfortunately, many girls were not attending school.

Now we have put schools and infrastructure in place, training the teachers, and now we’ve got girls going to local universities, which is unheard of. The schools that I attended myself were built during the colonial era and almost 60 years of age. And for 60 years, no child had gone to university up until I came onboard. Now we have girls and boys attending university. In many ways, we have changed the tradition of the baton that is being passed down from [these children] to their own children. And I think it is going to provide more education, especially in rural Africa.

RH: I’m so blown away. I’m just so blown away because you know what’s happening in the news right now with America’s immigration issues and the person who’s currently in the Oval Office. A lot of Americans and Westerners don’t understand the hoops newcomers jump through and the bravery it takes to come here and believe in the American dream in order to change the world for the better. I cannot help but be floored by how you came here and worked and studied and achieved what you did. Did you even speak English when you first arrived?

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Dr. Trent: No, I could not speak English. But I learned my English from reading romance novels. It’s funny. A friend would say to me if you read romance novels, you’ll get so attached to the story but in many ways it will improve your English. That’s how I learned my English.

I love reading. I love to make connections between pictures and words. I remember the first book that I bought. It was for my brother. It was a geography book. I could not read it. And when he showed me that book, I cried and said, “Please tell me, I need to understand what’s happening.” And I could see these beautiful pictures and these words and I wanted to know what the words were saying about these pictures. So that pushed me into wanting to read. And up to now, I read a lot and it helps me with my English. I’m not an eloquent speaker.

RH: Oh, yes you are! [laughs] Yes, you are.

Dr. Trent: [laughs] I try my best. When I came to this country, my English was very, very poor but I never gave up. I was the oldest student in every class I attended and sometimes older than the professor. But I never cared because I knew I was on a second journey, not only to change and redefine my life but also to change the life of women and girls and boys in my community. It was my responsibility and I needed to do it no matter what it took.

RH: I mean … just dealing with language barrier alone. And you brought five kids with you!

Dr. Trent: Yes, I brought my kids with me and I left the one child in Zimbabwe. I was too poor to raise enough funding, but guess what, he was able to come here and be with his brothers and sisters. It was amazing.

RH: Wow. Just every possible challenge one can imagine, you faced. Not having enough food to eat. Working all those jobs. And I know with your kids, once they got here, I’m sure they wanted all the stuff they saw other children with. And you had to tell them no, we can’t do that.

Dr. Trent: Oh yeah. Oh my gosh. Those were the years, but you know, despite the suffering that I went through picking food from the trash can and living a life that was just horrible because it was hard, I learned a lot about this country, I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about my kids, and in many ways I laid a foundation of how we can work together, of how we can embrace adversity and still become champions at the end of the day.

RH: You are so my hero. How old is your youngest now?

Dr. Trent: My youngest is 22. We’re in New York right now and she just came this morning from school for the unveiling on Monday and we are so excited.

RH: Now I know that your work is far from being done as you’re continuing to open your schools and open doors for people all over the world. What’s next and how can we support your efforts?

Dr. Trent: You are so right. I’m not a period at the end of a sentence. I always remain a comma because there is more to be done. So what’s next for me? The question has always been how we can sustain education in rural Africa. And that’s the reason why I’m creating the She Shines collection with kikki.K. The proceeds will help sustain our schools, help more girls attend, and create employment for women. You can visit tererai.org to learn more about what you can do and also you can go to kikki-k.com and buy some of the products we have come up with. Most of the products have been inspired by the work we’re doing. There are readings and journals and other beautiful things women would love to have in their homes.

To learn more about supporting education initiatives in rural Africa, visit tererai.org. The Awakened Woman: Remembering & Reigniting Our Sacred Dreams is available on tererai.net and all major booksellers. 

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