WASHINGTON - Tererai Trent appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2009 and inspired the world with her story of overcoming enormous odds to pursue her dreams of education. This week, she finds herself immortalized alongside Winfrey with a bronze statue in New York City. She is the only African woman to have received this honor.
The Zimbabwean educator and humanitarian is one of 10 “Statues For Equality” created by sculptors Gillie and Marc Schattner. Trent’s statue depicts her with her arms aloft, surrounded by the flame lily, the country’s national flower.
“It comes without saying that, by projecting these women into larger-than-life-size sculptures, it will help change our society — a change that will elevate the lives of women all around the world. A change that can trigger gender equality in careers, industries and the home,” Gillie Schattner said at the ceremony.
“I come from a very poor place, and I grew up very poor. I had four babies before I was even 18 years of age, and to think that because of the power of believing in a dream and today I am being celebrated,” Trent said. “And to think I have a statue in New York, the most celebrated city in the world? It’s just unbelievable. Even my own grandmother and my mother never dreamt of that.”
Trent grew up in a village and was denied an education because she was a girl, like her mother and grandmother before her. She secretly learned to read by using her brother’s books but was married to an abusive husband when she was 11.
But Trent did not let her dreams die. She moved to the U.S. and pursued a graduate degree, ultimately earning a Ph.D., after 20 years of effort. She taught global health at Drexel University and currently runs the Tererai Trent International Foundation, which focuses on providing education to children in rural Zimbabwe. She is a sought-after public speaker and author.
“When one woman is silenced, there is a part within all of us women that get silenced,” Trent said. “But when women are awakened and recognized in public places, all of us, we get the true joy of knowing that we are all equal with men.”
Anesu Munengwa, the program manager of the Tererai Trent Foundation in Zimbabwe, said Trent isn’t distracted by fame. “She does whatever she does quietly … we have to remind people of the work she is doing and how it is impacting the community she comes from.”
Trent’s story has inspired people around the world. Winfrey announced she would donate $1.5 million to assist Trent in building schools. To date, they have built 12 schools in rural Zimbabwe and helped 38,000 children get an education. Some of them are now going to universities.
Beatrice Nyamweda, Trent’s friend of more than 35 years, traveled from Zimbabwe to attend the unveiling of the statue. She said Trent’s impact is felt back home in communities where there is an opportunity gap.
“There are 10 children who went to her school and started studying at the university currently. She has changed the lives of these children who are bright but lack resources. I am proud of her for that,” Nyamweda said, speaking in her native Shona.
During the unveiling of the statue, Trent said her greatest joy is passing along opportunities she received to others. She said she made a conscious decision to end a cycle of poverty and oppression that had stifled the women in her family for generations.
“My grandmother used to say that when you think about your great grandmother when she was born she was born holding this baton. I'm calling it the baton of poverty, the baton of early marriage,” Trent said. “So as women and as individuals, we have the choice to say do I want to carry on and pass on this ugly baton or do I want to pose in my own life to reflect and say what baton do I want to pass on? I'm deciding to pass on the baton of education.”
VOA Zimbabwe Service's Marvelous Nyahuye contributed to this report from New York