Usha’s Story: Mobilizing Action Around The World


Earlier this year, Pratham and J-Pal were among the recipients of funding from the philanthropic collaborative Co-Impact. The grant will allow us to aid governments and NGOs in the design and scaling of Pratham’s proven Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach in multiple countries across Africa, including Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Zambia.

This multi-year initiative will help three million primary school children learn to read and do basic arithmetic. What started in a Mumbai slum two and a half decades ago is now taking root on an international scale.

Recently, the head of Pratham’s content team, Usha Rane, reported from Niger, where she was leading the training of the local TaRL team. In Africa, like in India, Pratham instructors not only improve schooling and learning but, in doing so, also become deeply engaged with the children and their lives.

Below is a firsthand account from Usha of how a set of determined and caring individuals mobilized action around the world to change the life of a child on the verge of blindness.

Ibrahim (young boy in Niger):

It is summer in Niger, a francophone country in West Africa. Hot summer. Sand floats around everywhere. A school building is mounted on the sand. I can breathe neem tree because I am standing under the only tree which is planted hardly around five meters away from the school. I see more than fifty young children entering the classroom. They are together. They are so much together that they look like one big fish swimming under the water of sand. They are making lots of noise, but they are together. They disappear inside the darkness of the classroom and I follow them with three master trainers in Pratham’s teaching at the right level methodology. Master trainers will conduct the grade I and II activities and I will sit overseeing them with the help of an interpreter.

The children are now quiet. They are somewhat nervous because the master trainer is new to them. Other adults, too, who are sitting on the benches don’t look familiar. The master trainer makes all the children sit on the floor and starts the class activities. I see that the students are listening to him with rapt attention. Now, they have forgotten about our presence and they are giggling, pushing each other to participate in the classroom activities. Almost every child is getting an opportunity to say something either in the whole class activity or in small group activities.

One child has caught my attention right from the beginning, but I avoid looking at him. However, again and again, my eyes search for him and I instantly look away. On both his cheeks a small film has gathered. His nose is running too and his eyes are full of tears. I observe this in an instant glance and I feel, “No, I shouldn’t look at him again.”

But the child with foam on his cheeks keeps raising his weak hand and keeps trying to draw the master trainer’s attention in his meek voice. The master trainer avoids him. “Why am I trying to escape from him?” I ask myself. “No, I can’t. I should not do this,” I say to myself.

I get up from my seat and walk towards him. Actually, I want to clean his face with my dupatta. I want to scrub his face thoroughly. I think for a while and decide to hold his hand. I gently bring him to my desk. He is so weak and fragile that I feel he will just break if I put any force on him. I take out some tissues from my purse and wipe his face. Only few children and the translator notice this, but they don’t say anything. The child goes back. I notice there are no expressions on his face. He is blank, but once again, his eyes are filled with tears. They drop slowly, the lather starts gathering and he gets busy with the classroom process. He tries to raise his hand and wishes to answer, but the master trainer ignores him. He is a boy who won’t give up easily. I admire his drive. He keeps trying but with no luck.

The classroom activities are over and there is nobody around me in the classroom. I walk out slowly and look out for Aki.

Aki (Japan International Cooperation Agency – JICA)

Aki is a tiny, enthusiastic, young JICA employee. She is so very active that I always wonder where she gets her energy from. She has dedicated her life to children in Niger. She has been staying in Niger for many years and I don’t think she has any plans to go back to Tokyo, where her home is. The dusty, sandy Niger has become her home.

Aki is busy micromanaging things around her, organizing vehicles to take us to the location where we will have lunch, talking to people around her and giving instructions to the head teacher who will call the children the next day for practice class. I feel I should not disturb her because she is extremely busy.

The Sun is not kind either. I wish to go and sit in the car instantly. But…I hold Aki’s hand and start searching for the child. And while doing this, I tell Aki that I must find this boy. Fortunately, he has not left the school yet. He is waiting for somebody and I rush towards him along with Aki. I tell Aki that I wish to know his name. I also tell her why. The child tells his name to Aki. He is waiting for his elder brother, who is studying in grade III.

Aki listens to me intensely keeping all her work aside. I keep looking at her, expecting some positive response or at least a nod of affirmation. I tell her that I wish to help this child. Can he get the best of the best treatment in Niger? Or can we take him to some other country where he will be treated well for his ailment, which is slowly making him completely blind?

Aki is thinking. We stand under the tree looking at a far distance in the desert without saying a single word. Breaking her silence, she slowly says, “Let us talk to the head teacher.”


He is a tall, very smart-looking young man. He can speak very little English and has a very promising smile. Talking to the head teacher is a good idea. He, too, listens to Aki absorbedly. When told about the boy, he looks at me with the utmost disbelief and says I won’t be able to speak to the boy’s father because he is in Benin, a nearby country where poor laborers migrate in search of work. The child’s mother won’t make any decision because she will not step out of her house. She probably doesn’t understand French etc. etc.

We keep staring at him. I see a gleam in the corner of his eyes. He smiles and in assuring tone says, “I will send a message for his father. He will come to meet you all the way from Benin.”

Ibrahim’s father

A landless laborer in his thirties appears before us. He is holding Ibrahim’s hand. He starts speaking, looking at Aki. He speaks for around a half hour. The four of us—Aki, Ibrahim’s father, Ibrahim and I—are standing under the lonely neem tree. The breeze is cooling. He keeps explaining to Aki: what hasn’t he done for this child, how he ran from pillar to post, how each time he was turned away, how difficult it is to feed the family of eight children…. She never translates, but I understand. Then, there is silence. He is not a man who will vociferously say “thank you.” He touches his child’s head and looks up at the sky.

The Chinese hospital in Niyame

The Chinese government has built a huge hospital with all modern facilities in Niyame. The services are provided at cost, but that is still not free of charge. Aki and I decide that we will first consult the local ophthalmologist, who is associated with the hospital. The doctors at the hospital tell Aki that they will not be able to treat Ibrahim in their hospital. I have to return to India and hence Aki personally starts running around to facilitate the preliminary checkup for Ibrahim. She bears all the costs of pathology while running around with the family from one center to another.

Back home in India, I write to my colleagues, friends and relatives. The child’s treatment will need money—a substantial amount.

And I get a response. Madhav writes to me, as expected.

Madhav (Pratham, India)

He writes a to-the-point e-mail. This is his style! He asks some pertinent queries and wants his queries answered quickly. I am in Peru. So Aki, in her Japanese accent with a heavy French intonation, explains the problem of Ibrahim to Madhav and sends him all the pathological reports. The reports are in French and they need to be translated into English. I accept the help of Laura from Paris. She tries her best, but the task is indeed difficult because it is translating medical transcripts without the proper understanding of medical terminology. Through video and e-mail exchanges, I learn that medical opinions are being gathered from expert practitioners in India.

But the decision has to be made—a decision about where the child should be operated on. In India or in Nigeria? Nigeria is a bordering country of Niger. Niger citizens don’t need a visa. But there is a major problem. Nigeria is an anglophone country. Neither of the child’s parents nor any close relative can speak English. Aki manages to find a gentleman who agrees to accompany Ibrahim’s parents. She has gathered the courage to send the child to Nigeria.

Madhav is an alchemist and also a catalyst. He has a unique ability to bring diverse forces together to turn them into positive energy. He finds a donor!

Sapphira (Vijay and Marie Goradia Charitable Foundation, USA)

I have never met her and have not even written to her. But when I think about her, I imagine a young girl who is empathetic about everything under the sky—a pious soul. Tirelessly, she keeps in touch with Aki and they become a team. She connects with the SightLife, a global health organization focused on eliminating corneal blindness. They help identify doctors in Nigeria, finds the best one and starts communicating with him. A seamless, absolutely grounded and genuine effort with no intention of getting any recognition—I must meet Sapphira someday.

Dr. Fasina Yemi from Nigeria operates on Ibrahim

Just one week ago, Aki sends the following e-mail to me:

“I hope you are doing fine. I just came back to Niger after several weeks travel to Japan and Ghana; then finally I saw Ibrahim yesterday. During his stay in Nigeria and when he came back home, I was not in Niger, but I could get the information from the hospital. He is fine. The operation was successfully done and he recovered very well the doctor said. Please find attached picture (unfortunately he was so nervous, he didn’t smile!! So he didn’t look fine…but he is okay) He just has to stay at home because his nose is still fragile and must not be touched. I will try to make a video call sometime to the doctor in Nigeria to show him Ibrahim and discuss. Anyway, Ibrahim will have another consultation with the doctor at the Nigeria hospital in May, then if no problem, the treatment will be done. I hope everything is going well.”

Aki keeps transferring her energy.