charity, Education, Expat, Expat Life, South Africa

Thokozani: A Happy Place

Thokozani preschool Diepsloot, Johannesburg, before and after photos of buildings.

There is a great deal of poverty in South Africa and some expats choose to use their time here to do what they can to contribute to improving and empowering local communities through a variety of volunteer programs, fundraisers and initiatives.  All in all there are some fantastic expat projects going on. Today’s guest post is written by expat Mona Brantley with input from Annabel Newell. Mona currently heads up the Friends of Diepsloot volunteer team that has invested an enormous amount of time and love in Thokozani Preschool over the last few years to great effect.  Over to Mona…..

Where is your happy place? Have you found a place in your current location that makes you smile, where only good memories are made? For me and many other Joburg expats that happy place literally is Thokozani (a Zulu word for “a place or state of happiness”).

Four years ago, in April of 2012, Laurence Braeckman, a Belgian expat, went into Diespsloot township to look at schools, day cares, and preschools. When she discovered Gogo and Thokozani, she knew she had found her happy place.

Gogo (Zulu for grandmother because no one calls her by her name Miss Lizah) had already been running Thokozani for six years, primarily as a day care and a place of safety for the very young children of Diepsloot.

The facilities then were very basic. They were making food for 200 kids on a two gas hob cooker in a kitchen that doubled as the office. The children sat and ate on the floor. They practiced writing letters on the backs of their classmates. The classrooms were little more than shacks: hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The food, though made with love and care, was not nutritious enough for growing children. While the kids were safe and in a loving environment, so much more could be done, and Laurence and her cohorts set to work.

According to Annabel Newell who took on the program when Laurence left, one of the most memorable situations involved a tiny baby that was brought to Gogo’s safe haven. Annabel says, “Just one month after we became involved at Thokozani, a baby was brought to Gogo with severe burns to her head and back. She was about three months old and had been used as a shield by her mother when her grandmother threw boiling water at her mother. The baby was in a very bad way – Laurence and a couple of the others took her immediately to the hospital where she was checked & bandaged. Regular doctors’ appointments and strict hygiene helped her to survive. We almost lost this little girl 3 times over the past 4 years – she is underweight for her age, the doctors suggest from the trauma. She is our lucky mascot and represents what we try to achieve through our work.”

Thokozani preschool Diepsloot Johannesburg, covered veranda.

While this girl’s story is a success, Annabel also says that the first interactions were heartbreaking. “We lost three babies to malnutrition in the first two years – some people said that was actually ok but to me it was completely heartbreaking and unacceptable. We upped our fresh food & veg amounts, helped to educate the cook & Gogo on nutrition but the hardest thing was (and still is) reaching the parents.”

Annabel also says “We treated a few children for illnesses like bronchitis, taking them to our local doctor with the parents permission. Increasingly we now encourage the parents to take their children themselves, with Gogo’s persuasion as well.”

In time, the neighbors and parents grew to trust the expat group called Friends of Diepsloot. A few months ago, we were having dinner at Montecasino. Through a lengthy conversation with our waiter we discovered that not only was his daughter Gracious in Thokozani, but she was also in my class.

I pulled out my camera and showed him pictures from earlier in the day and there was his daughter laughing and learning in a safe and healthy environment. He was thrilled to see this, but I was even more thrilled when he told me the reason they had chosen this preschool for their daughter was because of the Friends of Diepsloot. He wanted his only daughter to receive the best education possible.

The scope of work the volunteers do has changed over the years. Initially work was done on the infrastructure predominantly. Funding was secured from companies such as SAB Miller and ABI. New classrooms were built in place of the shacks; tables and chairs were introduced. Gogo danced a lot, and the children smiled a lot.

Recent changes have brought a covered outside area so the children can escape the heat and sun but still enjoy the fresh air. Also, a much needed safety railing was installed for the outside classroom / performance stage.

Volunteers and donors have always been essential to Friends of Diepsloot. Some people join every Monday to spend time in the classroom with the children. Some like to do behind the scenes work with fundraisers or even making sandwiches.

It doesn’t take any special skills to volunteer. Just a willing heart! As Annabel says, “Thokozani is not just about helping the children and staff but more about how much we grow and learn from the experience. The need is so great, the gratitude so evident – it adds a whole new dimension to helping others. Knowing that they are safe with us is satisfying but knowing that we have helped prepare them for their next school is special.”

For me, I feel like we are more than visitors in South Africa. I don’t want to live in a country and not experience it. Like all expats arriving in Johannesburg, I was warned against going into the townships. But I have been going for over a year and I have experienced nothing but happiness, peace, and kindness from the school, the neighbors, the families, and especially the children.

I saw the father of Gracious this week. His daughter dropped his hand and jumped into my arms to say hello. He laughed at her antics and looked around at the newest additions. He smiled a very proud smile and said “soon I think I will see my daughter’s school on tv as the best creche in all of Africa”. Yes, sir, you just might. Or at least the happiest one.

If you are interested in learning more about the ongoing expat endeavours at Thokozani or are interested in becoming involved, please email Erica Herz at

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