Triumph of a Dreamer
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Any time anyone tells you that a dream is impossible, any time you’re
discouraged by impossible challenges, just mutter this mantra: Tererai
Of all the people earning university degrees this year, perhaps the most
remarkable story belongs to Tererai (pronounced TEH-reh-rye), a middle-aged
woman who is one of my heroes. She is celebrating a personal triumph, but
she’s also a monument to the aid organizations and individuals who helped
her. When you hear that foreign-aid groups just squander money or build
dependency, remember that by all odds Tererai should be an illiterate,
battered cattle-herd in Zimbabwe and instead — ah, but I’m getting ahead of
Tererai was born in a village in rural Zimbabwe, probably sometime in 1965,
and attended elementary school for less than one year. Her father married
her off when she was about 11 to a man who beat her regularly. She seemed
destined to be one more squandered African asset.
A dozen years passed. Jo Luck, the head of an aid group called Heifer
International, passed through the village and told the women there that
they should stand up, nurture dreams, change their lives.
Inspired, Tererai scribbled down four absurd goals based on accomplishments
she had vaguely heard of among famous Africans. She wrote that she wanted
to study abroad, and to earn a B.A., a master’s and a doctorate.
Tererai began to work for Heifer and several Christian organizations as a
community organizer. She used the income to take correspondence courses,
while saving every penny she could.
In 1998 she was accepted to Oklahoma State University, but she insisted on
taking all five of her children with her rather than leave them with her
husband. “I couldn’t abandon my kids,” she recalled. “I knew that they
might end up getting married off.”
Tererai’s husband eventually agreed that she could take the children to
America — as long as he went too. Heifer helped with the plane tickets,
Tererai’s mother sold a cow, and neighbors sold goats to help raise money.
With $4,000 in cash wrapped in a stocking and tied around her waist,
Tererai set off for Oklahoma.
An impossible dream had come true, but it soon looked like a nightmare.
Tererai and her family had little money and lived in a ramshackle trailer,
shivering and hungry. Her husband refused to do any housework — he was a
man! — and coped by beating her.
“There was very little food,” she said. “The kids would come home from
school, and they would be hungry.” Tererai found herself eating from trash
cans, and she thought about quitting — but felt that doing so would let
down other African women.
“I knew that I was getting an opportunity that other women were dying to
get,” she recalled. So she struggled on, holding several jobs, taking every
class she could, washing and scrubbing, enduring beatings, barely sleeping.
At one point the university tried to expel Tererai for falling behind on
tuition payments. A university official, Ron Beer, intervened on her behalf
and rallied the faculty and community behind her with donations and
“I saw that she had enormous talent,” Dr. Beer said. His church helped with
food, Habitat for Humanity provided housing, and a friend at Wal-Mart
carefully put expired fruits and vegetables in boxes beside the Dumpster
and tipped her off.
Soon afterward, Tererai had her husband deported back to Zimbabwe for
beating her, and she earned her B.A. — and started on her M.A. Then her
husband returned, now frail and sick with a disease that turned out to be
AIDS. Tererai tested negative for H.I.V., and then — feeling sorry for her
husband — she took in her former tormentor and nursed him as he grew sicker
and eventually died.
Through all this blur of pressures, Tererai excelled at school, pursuing a
Ph.D at Western Michigan University and writing a dissertation on AIDS
prevention in Africa even as she began working for Heifer as a program
evaluator. On top of all that, she was remarried, to Mark Trent, a plant
pathologist she had met at Oklahoma State.
Tererai is a reminder of the adage that talent is universal, while
opportunity is not. There are still 75 million children who are not
attending primary school around the world. We could educate them all for
far less than the cost of the proposed military “surge” in Afghanistan.
Each time Tererai accomplished one of those goals that she had written long
ago, she checked it off on that old, worn paper. Last month, she ticked off
the very last goal, after successfully defending her dissertation. She’ll
receive her Ph.D next month, and so a one-time impoverished cattle-herd
from Zimbabwe with less than a year of elementary school education will don
academic robes and become Dr. Tererai Trent.
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