Forgotten Women and Girls and The Gift of Adversity
In my village in Zimbabwe, the birth of a child is only complete when a female elder snips the umbilical cord, wraps it in an old cloth from a dress once worn by the mother, and buries the child’s umbilical cord deep down in the ground, with the belief that when the child grows, wherever they go, whatever happens in their life, they will never forget their birthplace.
Both my mother and my grandmother believed that, through the soil, the umbilical cord would always connect us to our birth and to our death.
You see, I come from a long line of generations of women, women who had been married young before they defined their dreams, and most of the time to older men.
My great-grandmother became the sixth wife to my great-grandpa. My grandmother became the fifth wife to my grandpa. My mother ended up taking care of many children that my father had sired with many, many women.
In the middle of the night, people would come and wake up my grandmother to go and delivery babies. She delivered many babies in the community and far.
As my grandmother was getting old, her eyes were failing her and she would shake uncontrollably. She would jokingly say, “You see, baby girl, these hands, they shake because they delivered many babies, and these eyes are becoming blind because, these eyes, they’ve seen many private parts.”
That got me thinking. If my grandmother had been educated, maybe she would have become one of the best gynecologists in my community, if not the whole world.
I grew up during the war, the war that liberated my country. I remember listening to one of the freedom fighters during the war and he said, “To educate is to empower, to empower is to liberate, and to liberate is to enable individuals to have dignity.”
In the year 2000, global leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit came up with eight goals, and two of those goals are directly linked to education.
All children everywhere, both boys and girls, would have achieved universal education by 2015, and end gender disparities in both primary and secondary education.
We are in 2015. Where are we today? With 62 million girls being denied the right to education, sub-Saharan Africa becomes the largest reservoir with girls not attending school.
Girls in this region, they account for 55% who are not attending school, with almost 52% of adolescents out of school. Who are these girls and what are their characteristics? What do they have in common?
Data tells us that these girls come from poor rural families. Their mothers never attended school. If they do, they had very little education.
Everyday in sub-Saharan Africa, 39,000 girls are married before they attain the age of 18. That takes me to my own childhood story.
By the time I turned 18, I was a mother of three and one child died as an infant, because I could not produce enough milk to feed the child. I was a child myself.
At 22 years of age, I was a battered wife just following the same pathway that generations of women before me had travelled. Then soon after independence, I met a woman who profoundly changed my life.
She came to my village and she found me with other women who were sitting in a circle. She joined the circle. She started talking about education and how her organization is changing the lives of many women, women who did not have an education, but because of this organization’s intervention, women were getting their education and able to send their own children to school.
Wow. I had never heard anyone talking about education for older women like me, battered, hopeless. Other women started talking as they were communicating with this stranger. I kept quiet.
The stranger looked at me, and she said, “You have been quiet. What are your dreams?” Me? Having dreams? I had never had anyone asking me about my dreams.
I opened my mouth, “My name is Tererai. I want to have an education. I want to have an undergraduate degree, I want to have a Masters, and I want to have a Ph.D.”
Silence followed my declaration. I could feel the other women asking, “How can that be possible? What about your children? What about the abusive husband?”
I don’t even know where I got the courage to share my dreams. Later, I learned the woman’s name was Jo Luck. At that time, she was the program officer for Heifer International, and later she became the CEO and president of the organization.
I ran to my mother and I told my mother what had happened. My mother said, “If you believe in what this woman has said to you,” because Jo Luck had said, “Your dreams are achievable,” and she kept on emphasizing the word achievable, which means tinogona in my language.
My mother said, “If you believe in what this woman has said to you, and you desire these dreams, and you work hard to achieve these dreams, not only are you defining who you are, but you are also defining every life that comes out of your womb and generations to come.”
“Tererai, write down your dreams and bury them, the same way we buried the umbilical cord.” I wrote my dreams: I want to go to America. I want to have an undergraduate degree, a Masters, and a Ph.D.
My mother said, “Read back your dreams to me,” and I did. My mother said, “Your dreams will have greater meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community. That’s what makes life meaningful.”
She handed me an old cane, where I wrapped my dreams, and I buried my dreams. It took me eight years to achieve my GED. Eight years of abuse. Eight years of struggling to get the next tuition for the next class that I needed to correspond, but eight years of never giving up.
A year after I achieved my GED, I found myself at Oklahoma State University, where I completed my undergraduate in Agriculture and my Masters in Plant Pathology.
Twenty years from the day I buried my dreams, I received my Ph.D. at Western Michigan University.
I remember walking to the podium to receive that paper that now says, “You are a Ph.D. holder.” I felt like a lawyer who had rested her case with the world, and if there are lawyers and prosecutors in this room, please forgive me.
Here was my closing statement. “If we give opportunities to those who are marginalized and toned down by the social views of our time, they can achieve their dreams. If we give opportunities to women and girls, if we give them an opportunity for an education, it will be the best investment any country could do.”
Now I have my Ph.D. How on earth was I going to fulfill my fifth dream, the dream of giving back to my community, the dream that my mother said, “Your dreams will have greater meaning when they are tied to the betterment of your community?”
Then an idea came. I remembered Jo Luck using the words “It is achievable.” In my language, it means tinogona. I designed my own t-shirts and I had the words “Tinogona – It is achievable.”
I was ready to go and sell these t-shirts, make millions of money and go and change the lives of women in my village. I was going to be a champion. Guess what? I only sold 20 t-shirts, and mostly to my friends. I realized that I didn’t have a marketing degree. I was devastated.
Then I got a phone call, the most memorable phone call of my life, a phone call from Oprah Winfrey. She donated $1.5 million to build a brand new school in my community.
In the past three years that we have been in partnership with Oprah Winfrey and Save the Children, our foundation has impacted almost 6,000 children who are getting better education.
We have trained our teachers. We have increased our pass rate from 14% in 2012 to 35% in 2014. Our girls’ reading comprehension has improved from 2% to 20%.
In 55 years, this school had never had a student go to a university. This semester, I just walked one student to one of the most prestigious universities in the country.
What gives me joy is when I see old men in the village holding their girls and taking them to school. One day this old man comes to me, holding his eight-year-old daughter.
With tears streaming down his face, he says, “Tererai, can she be just like you?” In that moment I realized not only are we improving education, but we are also transforming communities.
We love talking about empowering women and girls, because, ultimately, we are expressing our desire to right the wrongs that these women and girls are subjected to in our society.
However, those aspirations are shadowed not only by the policies we make, but also by the decisions that we make at individual levels.
You know, Chief Seattle wisely noted, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we are doing it to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. Our survival is tied to the survival of others.”
Ladies and gentleman, I come here to TED to bury a dream in your heart, a sacred dream to educate all girls in our communities. Whatever you do, wherever you go, this dream that I have buried in your heart will always remind you of the importance of educating girls.
Education is everything. Education gives us dignity. Education liberates. It liberates the girl-child. It could have liberated my grandmother.