I can thank food poisoning for how I came to know Pratham. I was in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, covering an education conference for The New York Times, writing about the World Innovation Summit for Education, or WiSE, founded by Sheika Moza bint Nasser, wife of the emir of Qatar.
I barely got through the conference. I had an early morning departure for the quick flight from Dubai to Doha, and my digestive system had already made it clear it disagreed with the chicken schwarma sandwich I had consumed for dinner the night before. I managed to work the day with a few bathroom breaks, but toward the end of the day, I was starting to feel feverish. I asked staff in the media room how best to get a cab to get back to my hotel. (In an effort to ensure attendees were able to make the conference on time in construction-filled and traffic-snarled Doha, WISE had arranged bus and car pickup to and from the conference.)
Long story short, there were no cabs available and the media buses weren’t scheduled to pick us up for a few more hours. I told them I couldn’t wait and after some discussion, they decided that I could hitch a ride with one of the VIP cars that run on a much more flexible schedule.
The VIP in that car was Madhav Chavan, Pratham’s co-founder and the recipient of the WISE Prize, the organization’s highest honor. I didn’t know all that when I first stepped into the car, a little green and anxious to get back to my hotel. I thanked him for letting me hitch along and we made introductions, telling each other why we were at the conference. He told me that he had founded an education organization called Pratham that worked in India, and that he was here to accept a prize.
(I realized only later how large Pratham is — it was founded 22 years, has served millions of underprivileged kids, and has chapters across the globe — and that the prize that he was accepting is akin to a Nobel for education. Not a journalist’s finest hour, I’ll concede. In my defense, I got the assignment pretty late and my editor was only interested in a story about Sheikha Moza.)
The timing of the meeting was fortuitous as I was winding down my Dubai tenure and headed to Gujarat, India, for three months before I returned to the US and resumed regular life. I got in touch with Chavan, whose office connected me with the local Pratham chapter in Ahmedabad.
One afternoon I went with the local Pratham administrators to a Learning Center in Allahnagar, a Muslim community in the Behrampura neighborhood in Ahmedabad. This was back in March 2013 and, as it was summer in India, the class only contained five girls and six boys in the tiny two-room classroom. The kids are between 7- and 9-years-old and can read but are still dependent on visual clues to help them remember words and build vocabularies. Everyone in Allahnagar is very poor. There are no iPads or Wi-Fi here. The hope is to keep these kids in school until the 5th grade. For girls, economic and cultural pressures are especially strong to give up their educations and get married.
It’s been five years since I visited that learning center. I sat on the floor with them and joined in some of their exercises. Yes, this 7-year-old (see photo, left) and I are basically on the same level when it comes to reading Gujarati!
I have no idea how many of these kids made it to the fifth grade or what their lives are like now. But I’m fairly certain that exposure to programs like Pratham not only give these kids practical skills that will help them navigate daily life, they also give them an opportunity to envision themselves in a world beyond just the immediate experiences of the people that surround them.