Dr. Tererai Trent Teaches Others "Tinogona -It is Achievable"
I was fortunate enough to witness speeches given by Dr. Tererai Trent to two groups of students at Our Lady of Black Rock School (OLBR), on the west side of Buffalo. I'm sure the majority of the students listening to her story that day did not know that Dr. Trent is an internationally acclaimed African writer, educator and literacy advocate or that she had given a speech on the same topic to global leaders at the United Nations.
Dr. Trent was in Buffalo to appear at the WNY Children's Book Expo with her illustrated children's book, The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can. At first glance, Dr. Trent is a calm and soft spoken woman with a lilting voice and an easy smile. Upon introduction, I had an immediate urge to invite her to dinner so I could get to know her better. While sharing her story and later as she invited even the youngest students to ask her questions, her interactions were warm, genuine and compassionate.
While amazingly inspirational in the end, her personal story is hard to hear at times. But nothing I saw or heard that day at OLBR with the students prepared me for the passion, determination and fervor she displayed the following day when I heard her present as a keynote speaker at the WNY Children's Book Expo. Crossing the stage like a caged lioness, she expressed her fierce desire to educate the people, especially girls, of Zimbabwe in a voice that, at times, bordered on a tribal chant.
Dr. Tererai Trent was born to a poor cattle raising family in southern Africa, in a country under colonial rule that was then called Rhodesia. At that time cultural traditions in Rhodesia forbade girls from going to school. But tradition did not discourage young Tererai from wanting to go to school. When her brother brought home a geography book from school one day, she begged him to tell her what was going on the photos in the book. Eventually, Tererai bargained with her brother; if he taught her to read and write, she promised to do his homework. Tererai's brother wanted to hunt and be outside, not sit in a classroom, so the deal was struck.
When it was discovered that Tererai was the person doing her brother's homework- since he could not pass the tests on the material- the teacher begged Tererai's father to allow her to go to school. Her father acquiesced, but traditions are strong in the village, and two semesters later, Tererai's father accepted a bride price for her. She was soon married - she was not yet 13 years old at the time.
In 1980, after many years of war, peace came, and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. A visitor came to Tererai's village from Heifer international to meet with villagers. During the visit, she asked Tererai "what are your dreams?" Tererai, who had three children at the time, said "I want to go to America to attend college, then I want to get a masters degree and then a PhD." The visitor, Jo Luck, who later became president and CEO of Heifer International, said "If you believe in your dreams, they are achievable."
Tererai went home and told her mother about her encounter with Jo Luck. Tererai's mother told her to write down her dreams on a sheet of paper. When her mother asked her to read what she had written, Tererai said "I want to go to America, I want to get a college degree, I want to get a masters degree and I want to get a PhD." Her mother pointed out that all Tererai's dreams were for herself, she said "dreams are stronger when they are for the betterment of the community." So Tererai added a fifth dream, to go back to Zimbabwe and build a school, so no other girl would have to go through what she did to get an education.
It is tradition in the culture of her village, for the umbilical cord of a newborn baby to be wrapped in a scrap of its mother's clothing and buried deep in the ground, "so no matter where that child goes, they always know their roots are in this village." So Tererai's mother gave her a tin can and told her to bury her dreams deep in the ground. This simple act reset the history of women in her family.
After that day, Tererai began taking courses for her GED by correspondence. Her husband, a man of tradition, did not believe girls should go to school, so he beat her often. Still, Tererai continued her classes. It took her eight years, but she attained her GED and set her sights on college. Tererai did fulfill her dreams of earning her bachelor's degree a masters degree and a PhD in the United states, all while raising her now, five children. The road was long and full of challenges, but Tererai never lost her intense determination. Each time she accomplished a degree, she returned to her village, dug up the can with the list and check off her accomplishment. A shared mission led Oprah Winfrey to help Dr. Trent achieve her final goal, that of building a school where all children in the village are educated.
Our Lady of Black Rock School (OLBR) has a large immigrant population with many children who have escaped from war-torn countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Burma and the Congo. Dr. Trent's visit offered these children an opportunity to see and hear someone who may look and sound familiar to them; a successful and powerful woman who had endured some of the same things they might have seen or experienced. I felt honored to be a witness that day.
Before her visit, the students at OLBR had all read Dr Trent's book, The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can. After the presentation, the children were invited to ask questions, even the littlest ones. The children formed a line and quietly stepped forward to ask their question. When she started seeing faces familiar to Africa, Dr. Trent started asking the children where they were from. The responses were Rwanda, Sudan, Congo, Kenya. When a child asked her "What are you proud of?" Dr. Trent's response was "I am proud when I go back to my village and see older men walking the young girls to school. The villagers now realize it is important to educate all the children."
The following day, at the children's Expo, Dr. Trent explained that the proceeds from her book would go to providing breakfast and lunch for the 1,200 children that now attend the eleven schools that have been built or refurbished through the generosity of large and small donations. She went on to say "three quarters of those students are orphans due to the AIDS epidemic; they walk five to eight miles to school each day, barefoot and with little or no food."
This holiday season, we have so much to be thankful for, especially the people who are willing to endure pain and overcome challenges that result in significant and beneficial change for others, people like Dr. Tererai Trent. Tinogona!!
To watch a video about Dr. Trent visit: http://www.tereraitrent.org/videos/