I’ll never forget when Oprah Winfrey turned to me and said, “We are going to build a school!”  This was my second time on her show, and Oprah had just named me her “all-time favorite guest” in 25 years of the show.  As if that wasn’t enough, she had just informed me that she was donating $1.5 million to build a school in my home village in Zimbabwe!  When Oprah gave me the incredible news, my response – in the midst of overwhelming gratitude – was “It is achievable!”  (Tinogona means “it is achievable.”) With that, Tinogona Foundation was born.

Oprah had sent a film crew to my village when I was her guest the first time, so she knew my story and had seen the dilapidated school that I dreamed of replacing. I had struggled greatly to get an education myself, and after many years had finally done so, completing my doctorate in 2009. I had broken the cycle of poverty in my life – an achievement that gave me an incomparable feeling of personal dignity, and I wanted others in my village to experience that too. I wanted to provide quality education to thousands of children in my country—so they can break the cycle of poverty in their families—thereby fulfilling my fifth dream of giving back to my community by rebuilding my childhood elementary school.

While Zimbabwe literacy rates had once been ranked as one of the highest within Southern Africa,  the global economic crisis of 2008 hit the country hard.  My childhood elementary school, Matau Primary School, was not spared; the parents could not afford school levies that enabled rural schools to maintain the infrastructures and purchase schoolbooks and supplies. Parents began withdrawing their children from school, particularly girls, who were then often forced into early marriages. Oprah knew that I was selling t-shirts with hopes of raising enough money to rebuild this school, and knowing that my fund-raising alone would have taken many years, she not only encouraged viewers to purchase the t-shirts, but also provided a $1.5 million donation.  Oprah’s generous gift could not have come at a better time; this was an opportunity that was going to count!

Rebuilding a school is no small challenge, requiring cooperation, skills, and resources from various organizations.  To spearhead the effort, Oprah brought in Save the Children, to manage the construction of the school and train the teachers. This went well beyond brick and mortar. It was about improving to the quality of the education, and ensuring meaningful education that brings dignity to rural children.

Even though most people in the Matau village live in abject poverty, they all owned the process of building the school – so much so that they literally made the bricks used to build it.

Today we have changed the tides; the construction of Matau Primary School has been completed— Wow! With the help of Save the Children, we have trained 125 teachers, worked with nine schools (five primary and four secondary schools) and improved learning for 4,033 children in Zimbabwe.

I soon was convinced that it was definitely real, as I took a trip around campus to sip the achievements for myself!   Join me as I share with you that experience:

Back at the Matau Primary School campus, I head toward the new water well and pump which now provide clean and safe water for the school and neighboring communities, built thanks to Oprah’s donation.

As I sip the sparkling water from the borehole, I realize this is the first time the school has had clean and safe water. Before this, many had fetched their drinking water from the rivers and open wells.

I round the corner past a colorful paintings of wild animals, and there in front me are several four- and five-year-old girls reading their new books, while others play on swings, laughing with each other.  The pre-K headmistress watches the scene with a smile of wonder. It hits me then that these little girls are at school, not at home attending to chores and taking care of their siblings as I had in my own childhood. I never attended pre-K, and I remembered that at their age I had to spend much time in my parents’ fields either keeping the birds from eating millets or scaring other wild animals from the fields.

Carrying the children’s laughter with me, I head toward the newly constructed library, the only library found in this area of rural Zimbabwe. My heart swells as I visualize children seated there, concentrating on their books. I smile, and gather my emotions, looking up to see Gogo (grandmother) Kawocha heading toward me.

She shares that “It feels beautiful to be surrounded with these new buildings and to know our grandchildren are learning.” With a huge smile, she asks, “Tererai, are you coming to our reading camp this weekend?” This old woman cannot even read or write, and she still knows what is happening in the reading camps!  We have 36 reading camps,  (shared among 6 schools), where school children come to read under the guidance of a trained reading mentor. This innovation has truly boosted literacy among the children.

My tour continues to the new administration block, where I see a young male teacher heading toward me. Before we even touch hands in greeting, he starts talking and nodding his head. “We are proud, we are proud, Dr. T.  We can turn the tide around; we can encourage more girls to dream big; all we need is to provide these children with food while at school,” he says in short sentences.  I get goose bumps, inspired by the light in his eyes. Before I respond, he says, “We can make these children achieve their dreams, but to feed their brains we need to nourish their bodies.  Yes, we can do it and provide hope for these girls.”

I listen to him with mixed emotions, as I feel happy, but also overwhelmed — of course the teacher is right; we need to provide the children with food! While Zimbabwe was once a breadbasket of Southern Africa, now one out of three children is malnourished, and if this is not addressed, the children’s academic performance will be compromised, even with the new buildings and education quality.  Matau Primary School currently serves over 1,050 students from preschool to 7th grade, and about one third of them are orphans. Most of these children come from very poor households: on average, almost 95% of Matau Primary School children walk eight kilometers (more than 4.5 miles) to school on an empty stomach We truly must provide food at the school!

Once again, the parents and teachers have all agreed to commit to a collective goal – this time, to raise enough funding to build a “canteen” to provide nutrition to our 1,050 hard-working primary students. For many of these children, this will be their most significant meal of the day. Without hesitation, the parents, together with the building committee, began talking about molding the bricks, and I clearly saw their resolve to never give up on a golden opportunity!

We need more, however, than resolve.  In order to construct the canteen, we need $60,000.  The Rotary Club of Salinas has already generously donated $64,000 to furnish the canteen, but if we fail to raise the money needed to build the structure, we may end up losing the furnishings money from the Rotary Club. Time is of the essence here.

I have reached out to my Facebook friends and other connections, and have had limited success. The fundraising campaign I ran through fondly.com raised a little over $2,500, but not nearly enough to fund the canteen construction.

While the road to $60,000 maybe challenging, something in me tells me there are more people out there who believe in the connection between academic performance and nutrition, and would welcome the chance to provide financial support to this specific project.

A blog produced for NY Times by Tererai Trent