What breaks your heart?
Those looking to make the world better might start by asking themselves that question, says Tererai Trent, author of the book “The Awakened Woman: Remembering & Reigniting our Sacred Dreams.”
Trent, born in Zimbabwe, came to the Qcity last week as guest speaker at the Habitat for Humanity Building Futures symposium, which focused on the need for affordable housing.
I met with Trent in Beasley Media Group’s South End studio, where we talked about a range of topics – her humble roots in Africa, her impoverished life as a mother and college student in the United States, and her current work as an international speaker and advocate for women’s rights, human rights, and education. (She was twice a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show and boasts the distinction of having been called Winfrey’s “all-time favorite guest.”)
An ‘untapped resource’
Now a prominent figure in her own right, Trent is calling on women worldwide to become agents for change.
“Women, we are the untapped resource. Women, we have the potential and capacity to change this world in a better way,” she said during our interview. “We are the healers. We are the matriarchs. We are the wisdom carriers in every community you go to.”
But it all starts, she said, when a woman discovers what fuels her passion for change – or that which breaks her heart.
“It is in those moments of our brokenness, in those moments of that what breaks our hearts, that we begin to feel the yearning to improve not only our lives but the lives of others,” she said. “So it’s a fundamental question for me. What breaks your heart?”
When speaking of heartbreak, Trent speaks from a deep, personal space.
Born in a rural village near Victoria Falls, she grew up in a community of cattle herders at a time when Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, still suffered under colonial rule. Educating girls, she said, was an afterthought. She taught herself to read and write by studying the schoolbooks an older brother brought home.
Despite her surroundings, Trent said she never accepted the tradition that girls should not be educated. But by the age of 18, she found herself married and the mother of four children. And without so much as a high school education, her story might have ended there.
A life-changing encounter
Trent said her life was changed unexpectedly when a woman named Jo Luck – the president and CEO of Heifer International – came to her village. Luck not only encouraged Trent to dream big but convinced her that those big dreams could be made reality. Further inspired by her own mother, Trent wrote down her dreams of going to America for higher education, sealed them in a tin can, and buried them under a rock.
In 1998, Trent and her family landed in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she enrolled at Oklahoma State University.
“In many ways, I was romanticizing that it’s all going to be beautiful, up until I arrived and realized that having five children and living in poverty … that’s not going to happen unless I have others to support me,” she said.
Trent said she and her husband (who she described in other interviews as abusive) struggled to provide even the basics – running water and electricity – and their children struggled in school.
“Without electricity and without stable housing, how do you expect your child to do their assignments and homework?”
A turning point came, she said, when one of her children came home in tears, upset after a classmate had said that the little girl smelled.
Trent said she also worried that her children might end up in prison, “hanging out with whoever…I don’t know who.”
“I didn’t want to see my children suffer that way, and I said enough is enough; I’m going back home,” she recalled.
Instead of returning to Zimbabwe, Trent said she followed the advice of a college counselor who encouraged her to work as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. That meant working three jobs, taking a full class load and still finding time to care for her children. (Her husband eventually returned to Zimbabwe and the two were divorced.)
A home of her own
A Habitat house Trent worked to help build eventually became her own, a twist she said she didn’t expect.
“In Zimbabwe and most southern African countries,” she said, “growing up during the colonial era, a woman did not own property; you are owned. A woman did not have a home, neither could she have a bank account.”
Now, decades later, Trent choked with emotion as she recited her former address — number by number, and then the street name — the first home she ever owned.
“It began to make sense to me, this word dignity,” she said. “Owning a home gave me dignity. It meant that my children, all of a sudden, they had a place that they can call home, and as a woman, it meant that I could walk with a different stride. It meant everything that I can think of.
“As a parent, when you are able to do that, you gain respect for yourself, you gain respect from your children, and it also meant that my own children were not failing in class,” she said.
Trent went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and, eventually, a Ph.D. After each accomplishment, she returned to her native Zimbabwe to help and encourage others. (Trent is now married to a man she met at Oklahoma State.)
In 2011, Winfrey donated $1.5 million so that Trent could build a school in her former village, according to published reports. The school was completed in 2014. The next year, Trent published a children’s book about her life called “The Girl who Buried her Dreams in a Can.” She also heads Tererai Trent International.
These days, Trent spends much of her time advocating for social and economic justice – which cannot be properly attained, she said, without affordable housing and universal access to quality education.
“You can’t talk about upward economic movement when you don’t do something about it,” she said. “…All things are connected. Our very survival is connected to the survival of others. So we need to be there for each other, to create those platforms for others to excel, to create platforms for equality.”
Trent said she is encouraged by what she calls a worldwide “awakening” among women. She said she wrote her latest book so that women could find the tools they need to “go deep within themselves” to find the “dreams that we normally shelve somewhere.”
“Women, they have to recognize the hunger that they have,” she said. “There are two kinds of hunger in our lives. There is the little hunger. The little hunger is all about immediate gratification. Women, we need never to go for the immediate gratification. We live in societies where it’s all about consuming, consuming. That’s the little hunger. But the great hunger, the greatest of all hungers, is hunger for a meaningful life, is hunger for us to help one another, is hunger that we can tap into as women and change this whole world.”