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Marie: Hey! It’s Marie Forleo, and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. Now, if you ever feel that your dreams are out of reach or maybe even impossible, my guest today proves that you can achieve anything you put your heart and your mind to. Dr. Tererai Trent is one of the world’s most acclaimed voices for women’s empowerment, and Oprah’s Favorite guest of all time.
Tererai received her doctorate from Western Michigan University and teaches courses in global health at Drexel University. She’s published two highly acclaimed children’s books and is the author of the award-winning, The Awakened Woman: Remembering and Reigniting Our Sacred Dreams. Tererai serves as a president of the The Awakened Woman LLC, a company dedicated to empowering women with tools to thrive as they achieve their dreams.
Tererai, it is such an honor. It’s honestly a dream to have you here. Thank you.
Tererai: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
Marie: When we met a few months ago, I felt like it was soul sisters from a whole other world and we’re like jumping up and down and hugging each other. and I was like, “Oh my goodness, can I possible talk with Tererai?” And I know I shared this with you, but I feel like the universe bring us together. You didn’t know, but I had been working on writing my book, and so I had been researching your story and looking at it from every angle because there’s one particular chapter that I wanted to write about you, and then all of a sudden you showed up in my Twitter feed and I’m like, “Wait a minute, she even knows who I am.” I was like, “What is happening here?”
Tererai: I do. You are the queen.
Marie: You are the queen, my love.
Tererai: No, you are. You are.
Marie: So I want to start off with something that you shared in the introduction to your book, which is amazing. You shared, “I come from a long line of women who are forced into a life they never defined for themselves.” Take us back to those early days in your village in Zimbabwe. I want folks to understand the picture of what life was like for you as a 14-year-old.
Tererai: You know I always talk about coming from this long line of generations of women, women who had been denied the right to their dreams, the right to their education. I always visualized my great-grandmother when she was born, she was born into this race that she never defined and she was born holding the baton of poverty, early marriage, illiteracy, a colonial system that never respected her, and she’s running into this race with this baton. She ran so fast, she hands over this baton to my grandmother. My grandmother grabs that baton of poverty, illiteracy, she runs, she hands over that baton to my mother. My mother grabs that baton in a race that she never defined because of the circumstances and she runs, runs, and she hands over that baton to me.
I never wanted to be part of that baton. I found myself getting married at a very early age and having babies. Before I was even 18, I was a mother of four children. Without a high school education, with nothing. But all I wanted was an education. And when I talk about this baton of poverty that’s being passed on, I also talk about the wisdom that is also passed on from generations before me. So in our lives, my grandmother used to say that you have the power to decide whether you keep on running with that baton of poverty, the baton of illiteracy, or you run with a baton of wisdom to re-change and re-shift this baton, so that you become the one who breaks the cycle of poverty, early marriage, lack of education, abuse, and all the ugly things in our lives.
So when I was hardly 22 years of age, my country, we had just gained our independence. Because all along we had been colonized by the British, and here I was, a mother of four and my country had gained that independence and strangers started coming in, Americans, Australians. And these were women who would come to the community. And there was this particular woman, she sit with me and with other women and she asked me one question that I’ll never forget in my life, “What are your dreams?” I never knew I’m supposed to have dreams because I was an abused woman, a silenced woman. Remember, I had four children. And actually one of the babies died as an infant because I failed to produce enough milk. I was a child myself. And I’m sitting there, I’m thinking, “Am I supposed to have dreams in my life?” And other women started sharing their own dreams and I was quiet.
She looked at me and she said, “Young woman, you didn’t said anything. Tell me, what are your dreams?” I couldn’t bring my dreams. I knew I had these dreams in me, but for some reason I couldn’t because there was so much noise in my mind. I had been shaped to believe that I was nothing. And maybe it was the way she kept on looking at me, the way she nudged me to say something and when I opened my mouth, I became a chatterbox, and I said, “I want to go to America. I want to have an undergraduate degree. I want to have a master’s and I want to have a PhD.” There was silence. The other women looked at me and I could feel they were saying, “Are you crazy? How can that be? You don’t even have a high school education.” And I guess there was something about these American women, when they were coming to my village, there was this sense of empowerment, sense of loving thyself, and I wanted that.
I would see them getting into their backpacks and removing books or papers and they would look at those books and open and they would put on their glasses, spectacles, and they would talk to each other and put back those spectacles back into their bags. And thought, wearing glasses was a sign of education, and I wanted that.
So when I talked about these degrees, I had these women talking about these degrees, and I wanted to have an education to change my life. And she looked at me and she said, “Yes, it is achievable. If you desire those dreams, if you desire to change your life, yes Tinogona.” Tinogona in my culture, in my language, it means, “It is achievable.” I never heard of a woman declaring herself to believe they can achieve their own dreams. And when I left that place, I ran to my mother and I said my mother, “I have met someone who made me believe in my dreams.” My mother looked at me and she said, “Tererai, if you believe in what this stranger has said to you and you work hard and you achieve your dreams, not only are you defining who you are as a woman, you are defining every life and generations to come.” And I knew at that moment that my mother was handing me an inheritance.
My mother knew that I needed to be the one to break this vicious cycle of poverty that runs so deep in my family and in the community. I needed to redefine the baton, so that I would never pass on this baton to my own girls. I needed to get this education so my mother said, “Tererai, write down your dreams and bury them the same way we bury the umbilical cord, the bead cord.” I come from a culture that believe so much in indigenous knowledge, ancient wisdom.
When a child is born, the female elders of the community, they take that infant, they snip the umbilical cord, bury that umbilical cord deep down under the ground with the belief that when this child grows, wherever they go, whatever happens in their life, the umbilical cord would always remind them of their birthplace.
So my mother said, “If you write down your dreams and you bury those dreams, your dreams will always remind you of their importance, that you need to redefine your life, that you need to break this cycle, that you need never to pass on this baton, this ugly baton of poverty, illiteracy, early marriage.” So I wrote down my dreams. Four: I want to go to America, I want to have an undergraduate, I want to have a master’s and a PhD. And I was ready to bury those dreams deep down under the ground when my mother said something so profound, which really has changed my life. She said, “Tererai, I see you only have four dreams, personal dreams, but I want you to remember this. Your dreams in life will have greater meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community.” And I looked at my mother and I’m thinking, “What does that even mean?” My mother repeated, “Your dreams in this life will have greater meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community.” I would end up writing down my fifth dream, number five.
When I come back I want to improve the lives of women and girls in my community, so they don’t have to go through what I had gone through in my life. I want to come back, create employment platforms for women. I want to come back, build schools so that girls, they won’t be marginalized. And I buried my dreams and it would take me eight years, and I call those “eight freaking years.”
Marie: Yes mama.
Tererai: To gain my high school diploma, because I was going through correspondence. I was an adult. I couldn’t fit into a classroom so I would do correspondence, and my mother was very poor. I didn’t get enough money to pay for my tuition. I needed five subjects, classes. English, math, biology, history, and Bible knowledge or something. And we were still under the British system of education so I will do my correspondence two subject at a time whenever my mother was able to sell ground nuts or any produce, she would give me $20, $40 to register for my classes, and I would write my exams and send these papers to a place called Cambridge. I had no idea what Cambridge is. And I would wait three to six months for that brown envelope from Cambridge to come. And I would open that envelope and I would realize I have a U, ungraded, I have an F, failure. And I wrote back to my mother, she would give me more money and I would write again and wait another six months. I open that brown envelope, I have a U, ungraded, I have a failure. And I would go back and I would wait and write and wait and finally, I opened that brown envelope from Cambridge. I had a B and I had an A.
I never give up. Eight years I never give up because I knew I was on a journey to redefine my life. I knew I had what it takes to achieve my own dreams in this life. And then after eight years, I would find myself at Oklahoma State University. And I did my undergraduate in agriculture.
Marie: I mean even just pausing there for a moment. There’s so many things to underscore and highlight that I am so moved by your spirit, and your vision, and your heart, and your tenacity. I mean when you buried those beautiful dreams in the can and you put them under the rock, you were still in poverty, you were a mom with an abusive husband.
Marie: Yes. And you did those correspondence courses for those eight freaking years, and then to get yourself over to university here in the States. As you wrote, you came over with money strapped to your waist.
Marie: Yes. And that wasn’t even… It was still a long journey after that.
Tererai: It was.
Marie: So before we go on to that piece of the journey, I just want to highlight your incredible, precious mom. I feel like you and I share something. My mom was the one that taught me everything is figureoutable, and your mom was at touchstone that said, “You deserve to dream.” The wisdom that she had, in terms of your fifth dream, it feels like that changed everything.
Tererai: It does. And I think in many ways she was pointing to the secret to our success that is not about the education. It’s not about the personal goals, neither is it about the personal financial goals, but it is about how our education and how our personal goals are connected to the greater good. That’s what makes humanity, that what makes who we are as a people.
Tererai: And so my grandmother would always say to me and my mother, “You have the power within. It’s not your past that’s going to define who you are, but it’s what you believe about yourself, it’s what you believe about your own expectations, what is it that you expect from yourself.” And she would tell me and my mother that, “You go to that place where you buried your dreams, you visualize the life as you think it should be.”
So I would spend hours and hours sitting in that same place, visualizing myself getting into an airplane. I’d never been in an airplane in my life, and I’d never seen one. The only airplane that I knew were the helicopters that would fly during the war. Because I was born and raised in a war-torn country. And I would visualize myself sitting into that helicopter, imagining myself flying to this place called America, and I would see these tall buildings. And my grandmother would say, “Feel those mental images, see those buildings.” And I would see them and I would even smell the life that I wanted. So when I got onto that airplane, there was this déjà vu, “I think I’ve been here before.”
Even when I arrived on campus, I felt I’ve been in this place before, because I had spent so much of my time wanting to change my life and so much of my time visualizing this life that I wanted, visualizing this life that I was not going to pass on this baton to my girls, and I wanted to change it all. So when I started my classes, I found pure joy. I was always the oldest student in any class that I’ve taken and sometimes older than the professor herself or himself. But I never cared because I knew I had the power to change my life.
Marie: Yes. And your life, when you got here, was still wrought with so much challenge. I remember when I first learned about your story in Half the Sky from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, you were feeding yourself out of trash cans, your children were cold, the husband that was abusive for a period of time, he was still here.
Tererai: Yeah. You know because Zimbabwe, where I was coming from, the weather is different, and there’s always this community cohesion. You can leave your kids with the neighbors and what have you. And now I’m in a different country and I didn’t have a scholarship. I would work three jobs to feed the children and still taking classes. I remember when my kids, when they arrived in the US, three months down the road as they were brushing their teeth, I saw their gums were bleeding and I knew they were missing fruits and vegetables. Back home, you can grow your fruits and vegetables and they grow because it is the tropics. And in America, fruits and vegetables are a little bit expensive.
So I would many, many times would go to bed hungry. And I went back to the university and I said you know, “I have a dream, but I’m about to give up.” I can’t see my children suffering. It’s one thing for me to have this great dream, but it’s another to see my kids suffering. And fortunate enough, the university said, “There are local stores here, I hope they don’t mind or you don’t mind if they give you leftover fruits and vegetables.” And I said, “No, I don’t mind.” So we went to this local store, the manager looks at me and said, “Oh, no, no. In this country, if we give you this leftover fruits and vegetables and if anything happens to your kids after they have consumed them, you’ll end up suing.” And I said, “I have no dime to sue anyone. Please, please I need to feed the children.” And the store manager says, “Okay, here’s a deal. You make sure that… I’m not going to hand over the fruits to you. I’m going to put them, pack them in the cardboard box, and I’m going to place the cardboard box outside the store, near the trash can. Make sure that at 4 o’clock everyday, you come and pick that box. If you’re late, we are going to throw the box into the trash can.”
99% I was late to that cardboard box because I had to work three jobs, take care of five kids, and I would find the box straight dumped into the trash can. Some of the fruits have already spilled over and I would collect everything, wash, and go and feed my children, and ask myself, “Who am I to even complain that I live in a trailer house in Oklahoma.” It’s a dilapidated trailer house. There’s no air condition. Everything is just falling apart. Who am I to complain when I know there are thousands of women and individuals that I see every day on the streets in Western countries, who am I to complain? And who am I even to say, “I’m feeding my children from trash cans.” When I know where I’m coming from, in Sub-Saharan Africa, millions of homeless kids are feeding from trash cans that no one is washing, at least the American trash can, someone washes it. Those thoughts grounded me because I knew at the end of the tunnel, despite its darkness, there was light. And I knew I had the solutions in me.
So I graduated my Master’s in Plant Pathology and told myself I wasn’t going for my PhD. I needed to work. It was too much. I needed to work. I needed to give better life for my children. And I applied for a job, got accepted at some place in Arkansas, Little Rock. and I went for the interview. And one day, I’m walking in the corridor and I meet this woman and she looks at me and she said, “I think I know you.” And I am thinking, “I have met many Americans and many white women. I don’t know.” She said, “I really think I know you.” And I am thinking, “Gosh. Who is this woman?” And then it dawned on me that, oh my gosh! That’s the very woman that I had met some 14 years back in my village. The one who had inspired me to believe in my dreams. The one who had never seen the povertness in me, the smallness in me, my giant, my champion, the one who said, “Yes, Tinogona, you can achieve your dreams if you believe in your dreams.” And that was Jo Luck. And now, she is the CEO and president of Heifer International. This organization that had just employed me. And I am thanking the universe. The universe has a way to honor our dreams if only we believe and we become determined and work hard towards our own goals.
And so my first trip home, I went to that place where I had buried my dreams, dug them up, and I could see that list, and check going to America, check undergraduate, check master’s. And I could see two dreams still looking at me and saying, “So what?” And I said, “I have the solution for you.” And I reburied those dreams and came back to the United States of America and enrolled myself at Western Michigan University for my PhD. And I remember the day that I graduated and I was walking that podium to receive my PhD, that paper that now says, “You are now a PhD holder. You are now Dr. Trent.” And I realized it had taken me 20 years from the day that I buried my dreams to the day that I was now going to receive my PhD.
And as I was walking that podium to receive that paper, I really felt like a lawyer who had rested her case to the world to say, “If we believe in our dreams, yes we can achieve.” But also to say, “If we believe in the dreams of others and create platforms for the opportunities, yes, they can achieve their dreams.” Because as I reflect back, it wasn’t because of my intelligence, but it was more because of the opportunities that I had been given in life. And I think that drives everything that I do today, to realize that I stand on the shoulders of others, I stand on the shoulders of giants, of champions and I have a moral obligation, a sacred obligation to allow young women, to allow girls, to allow individuals, to stand on my shoulders because if it wasn’t for the shoulders of others, I wouldn’t even be sitting here with Marie Forleo.
Marie: I can’t even, mama. I’m going to run over and hug you right now. You talk about that great hunger and I know there are so many people watching right now. I was talking with a woman earlier today who––and I was thinking about the beauty of your book––where the global silencing of women’s voices, where they don’t feel they have that permission to dream, and whether it is from familial trauma, sexual trauma, cultural trauma of not knowing that they have a right to dream. And that hunger inside of them is so healing. When I look at you, you have been an inspiration to me for so long. And just the beauty of your words and what you bring to people. What do you have to say to anyone watching right now? If they are, first of all, I know they’re going to be deeply moved and inspired by your story, but if they themselves are having trouble identifying that great hunger in their hearts. What would you say?
Tererai: You know we all have hunger, some they call it passion, but I prefer hunger because I realize there are two kinds of hungers in our lives. There is the little hunger. The little hunger is all about, “I want it now,” immediate gratification. But the great hunger, the greatest of all hungers, which is the hunger that we all have is hunger for a meaningful life. How do you then tap into that hunger? Because it is within us. You ask yourself, “What breaks my heart? What breaks my heart?” Because it is in those moments of our brokenness, in those moments that we realize that it’s not our past, it’s not the challenges in front of us. Once we realize that we have the power to find that solution within us, we begin to hear the stirring in our own heart, pointing us to something greater than who we are, and we find the answer to that great hunger. But we have to be more intentional.
Marie: Yes. One of the things I love about your book is there’s so many practical exercises. By the way you guys, The Awakened Woman, this is the paperback version and I’ve got my hardcover version as well right here. If you all don’t have Tererai’s book, you must, must get it. Get it for yourself, get it for every woman you know because it is filled with these practical exercises. And what I also love is the indigenous wisdom and the sacred wisdom and the rituals that you embed in this, that make it yet about so much more than just our small hungers.
Tererai: Yeah. Because what I have done… You know I have created these Awakened Woman series online workshops for women or for anyone. And I have taken into consideration the indigenous knowledge because who we are, what we do, to a larger extent whether we know it or not, it has been passed to us by the wisdom seekers, the wisdom whisperers and the storytellers because they become our role model. We take that and we plan accordingly because we have that wisdom with us.
And I’ve also considered the daily rituals because when we are not grounded in who are in what I call “coming home to ourselves,” we can only come home to ourselves if we practice daily rituals that will ground us. And when we become grounded, no fear, no doubt, no “I could have done that, I could have…” disappear because we know we have what to takes to achieve our goals in life.
I’ve also considered research, taking into consideration all the work that others have done and look at it and say, every businesswoman, every businessman, every artist, creative director that I know of, they are guided by research and they’re also guided by knowing that if they have their goals written down with intention, they can visualize the future they deserve. And they are more likely to be successful than those who are just doing projects or programs or having their dreams that are not even written down, or those who don’t even research on the work that they want to do.
So I truly believe that bringing research and bringing indigenous knowledge and daily rituals is what’s going to ground us, is what’s going to move humanity to the next phase of our life and transform everyone around us.
Marie: I believe that too, my love. It’s so sacred and it’s so beautiful. So one of the things that I think is so incredible that I want to share with you. You know the takeaway from the book about sharing our dreams with others. And when you have that courage to share your dreams with others, and your team actually shared with us that there are six young women from your Matau Secondary School, right? That one of the schools that you support and we heard that there are six young women who are the first to graduate and go on to college and university.
So I just wanted to share something with you. Very much like you, we are extremely committed to girls’ education. And your team told us that these young women might need some help attending their first year of university. So on behalf of myself and our community and Team Forleo, we will be paying their first year’s tuition for all of the women, so that they can get their start. We love you and we appreciate you and we want your ripple to continue, so you can keep passing that baton because you are a light on this world, and you are such a beacon of inspiration to everyone who has the honor to hear your story and to hear your beautiful words. And we want to continue to support you to do your good work.
Tererai: Oh my gosh. I have no words.
Marie: We love you.
Tererai: May I?
Marie: Of course. Are you kidding me? We love you so much and who you are and everything that you do and these beautiful six young women, who thanks to your example, take themselves and their dreams seriously. We want to help you make bigger ripples.
Tererai: Oh my goodness. And in fact, there are seven girls.
Marie: Great. Seven. We got it.
Tererai: And all of them, they’re going to be the first ones to go into a college or a university. The very first ones. All of them, their mothers and their parents, they can hardly read. This is truly helping these young girls to break that cycle of poverty. I come from a region where everyday 39,000 girls get married before they turn the age of 18. I was there. There’s a lot of silencing of young women, not only in my community, but this is a global silencing. And to have you come in and say, “I want to make a difference to these girls.” What you have done is redefine and re-shift the baton that they are going to pass on to their children and to their grandkids. And for that, I am grateful.
Marie: I am grateful to you. It is an honor and a privilege to sit with you and we will continue to support you and your work. And I want to say because we talked about it, because you know mama is a businesswoman too, for anyone that’s watching right now, if you want to get some free lessons from The Awakened Women series, you can just text MarieTV to 444-999, and you will get free lessons from this brilliant Dr. Trent about how to awaken your sacred dreams and bring them into life.
I cannot thank you enough for following your dreams, for telling your stories in this book so that we can share it and open up even more minds and hearts to what’s possible, and I hope that you and I will continue to be lifelong friends. And I adore you.
Tererai: Thank you so much and you know thank you for… Because you know Oprah donated 1.5 million years back. And in many ways, what you have done is to say, we uplift and carry on this dream that Oprah Winfrey started. And I am honored to partner with you. I am. And I think Oprah will just be so happy to know that what she started is now blooming, and the dream is becoming much more bigger. Because we can actually see these young women carrying their books on campus, achieving their dreams and redefining their own life.
Marie: That’s right.
Tererai: Thank you.
Marie: Thank you.
Tererai: Thank you.
Marie: Now, Tererai and I would love to hear from you. So this was a really beautiful conversation, so many insights, but we’re curious, what is the insight that really struck your heart and why and what can you do to take action on it right now? Leave a comment below and let us know.
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Stay on your game and keep going for your dreams because the world needs that very special gift that only you have. Thank you so much for watching, and we’ll catch you next time on MarieTV.