Perhaps it was because this woman’s life was worse than Oprah’s had ever been. Perhaps it was because Oprah always has been intrigued with people and stories from other countries and cultures. Perhaps it was because her life embodies all of the wisdom and lessons and encouragement that Oprah has tried to share with her fans and viewers for a quarter of a century. Maybe it’s all of those reasons and some.
For whatever good and just reason and from some alleged 30,000 guests over 25 years on television, Oprah selected and then revealed on Friday, May 20, that her favorite guest of all time has been Tererai Trent. Her rags-to-riches (not money) story is quite amazing.
Born and raised in a Zimbabwe village, Trent and her family were extremely poor. Because education was not encouraged among girls, she would sneak and study her brother’s books and do his homework so that she could educate herself. When the truth was revealed, she was allowed to go to school but only went for two terms before her father made her get married at just 11 years old. By the time she was 18, she had three children.
“When my husband realized that I wanted to have an education, he would beat me,” she told Oprah. “I have nightmares of that time of my life.”
In 1991, when she was 20, Jo Luck from help organization Heifer International came through her village to teach and empower women. It was then that Trent’s vision began to take shape.
“I remember very clearly saying: ‘My name is Tererai, and I want to go to America to have an education, and I want to have a BS degree. I want to have a master’s, and I want to have a PhD,” she says. “And she just looked at me [and said], ‘If you desire those things, it is achievable.'” Trent repeats those last words even today.
Trent’s mother encouraged her to write her dreams on paper. She did, adding, “As a woman without an education, life will continue to be a burden. I truly believe in these dreams, and I hope one day to work for the causes of women and girls in poverty.” She then buried the paper inside of a tin can in a special hiding place.
Eventually, she worked in her community for Heifer International and began to save for her journey to America. In 1998, she was accepted into Oklahoma State University. Her mother sold a cow, and several people in the community sold possessions to help send her and her now five children to the U.S. Her husband wouldn’t allow her to take the children unless he came as well. She earned her B.S. degree and, in 2003, her husband was deported due to abuse. That same year, she earned her master’s. Two years ago, and now happily married to Mark Trent, she completed her doctoral degree in agriculture. Although accounts have varying information, Trent is between 40-45 years old today.
Each time she reached a goal, she would go to her buried tin can and check off another goal. She and her mother have encouraged scores of other girls to write down their goals, giving them pencils, pens and tin cans. “It makes me feel happy, but at the same time, it makes me feel empty that there are more women who could have the same opportunity, but they are not getting it,” she says. “My story is not about me, but it’s about what can come out of my story.”
What has come out of her story is that she has organized to empower the women and girls in her village and started selling T-shirts to raise funds to build a school there. On Friday, Oprah surprised her by first telling her that she had purchased a T-shirt for every audience member. Trent was thrilled. The audience stood, applauded and waved their shirts. In her usual fashion, Oprah then announced to Trent that she was donating $1.5 million dollars and had asked Save the Children to commit to three years in her village to train more teachers to educate more children. Trent was speechless.
Oprah also committed to help Trent with the entire project because she said, “I know how hard it is [to start a school].” Oprah runs her own school south of Johannesburg in South Africa.
Here in America, where education is ignored or taken for granted, money is mismanaged and dreams are often deferred, there are so many valuable lessons in Trent’s story for us all. –arnell pharr