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In Conversation with the Othandweni Grannies

October 2, 2014


  • Patience Mokgadi, Othandweni Children’s Home
  • Sandra Thandi Twala, Othandweni Children’s Home
  • Elizabeth Maki Khumalo, Othandweni Children’s Home

Moderated by Mary Jordan, The Washington Post




JORDAN: Thandi, Elizabeth, and Patience, the Gogo Grannies. Wow. You know, my mom, whose a immigrant from Ireland, came to Cleveland, Ohio in the late Fifties, said to me just about every day, “Tell me who your company is and I’ll tell you who you are.” And I am in awesome company and I’m going to tell her tonight. The Gogo Grannies, the first thing is they’re younger than I am and they’re grandmothers, so can we just get that over with quick. How old are you, Thandi?

TWALA: Hi, I’m Thandi Twala. I’m 47 years old.

JORDAN: And you are a grandmother.

MOKGADI: I’m a grandmother at the Othandweni Children’s Home based in South Africa.

JORDAN: And Elizabeth.


JORDAN: Three grandchildren. How old are you?

KHUMALO: I’m 53.

JORDAN: 53. So, Thandi is 47 and is a grandmother, Elizabeth, 53 and a grandmother. Patience…

MOKGADI: I’m Patience Mokgadi. I’m 57. I’m the oldest. 57 years of age, I have two adult children and the eldest is 36. He has two children, a six year old and then an 18 month old.

JORDAN: And what they were saying was it was so interesting that some of the people have children when they’re 12. And so grandmothers can be and are a lot younger than I am. Patience is going to begin and just tell us a little bit about this program. And I love the name Gogo Grannies. And it actually means…

MOKGADI: Go… Gogo is…it’s a Zulu name meaning “grandmother.”

JORDAN: So it works on every level because “gogo” is “grandmother,” so.

MOKGADI: It is. Yeah. So we are gogo-getters as it were …


And we, we work for Jo’burg Child Welfare. Johannesburg Child Welfare is an organization in South Africa that works with children from marginalized societies or marginalized children who are marginalized. And Othandweni Children’s Home, which is where we are resident or work from is an arm, one of the residential facilities of Child Welfare.

Othandweni in loose translation in English means “a place of love.” That’s what it means. And we, it is, it is in Mofolo in Soweto.

I’m sure there isn’t anybody who hasn’t heard about the word “Soweto,” a township called Soweto anywhere in the world. It is in Mofolo, Soweto it’s about a 30 minutes walk to where our former President Nelson Mandela first house is. So there’s history there.

It was established in 1984 and the program that we’re going to talk about, the Grannies program, started in 2011. It is, would say this is the fourth year but basically three years because the first year was, was very, very, very, a little rocky and, and we’re still, still learning a lot from it. And…

JORDAN: Patience, I’m just going to jump in here because there are 30 kids in this home, The Place of Love. And, and Thandi, do you want to talk about how they get there, how the children get there? And then we’re going to talk about the stories about what the grandmothers do.

TWALA: Most of the children that’re at that center
Unfortunately guys, I’m a Zulugan, who’s not used to have this like a…


Our home, I’ve got 90 children, but you’ve got 30 children where they come from different backgrounds from vulnerable children, abused, neglected, others are orphans. So as they are in the center we as gogos, we are allocated to children. Each gogo works one-one with the child for two hours.

JORDAN: So just to be clear, this one child she gets to have for two hours every day, Monday through Friday.

TWALA: And then we are 15 grannies.

JORDAN: But the magic of the story is, do you want to—?

TWALA: We started with ten grannies in 2011 as Mom Patience was saying. By the magic that was done by this kind of progress, this kind of program progress it cames up whereby the management, the directors and the sponsors who were there, tried to enlarge it so that each and every child at the section must have a gogo. So that’s why we extend it again and have another additional five gogos. Each gogo is given two children.

JORDAN: Tell us a story about one of your children.

TWALA: In 2011 when I arrive there was a daughter that was given to me, the name, by the name of Zinclair. Zinclair, when I arrived there was a little bit shy, not talking. When I, I’m assisting children who are coming from school from grade R up to grade two with their homeworks. When Zinclair usually when we are supposed to do the homeworks Zinclair will start being slower. Zinclair doesn’t wants to write and turns her eyes, will be starting like a person who wants to cry, who’ll be busy, you know, avoiding to look at me. Then I took an initiative starting to talk with the supervisor at the ??? section explaining to her that maybe that Zinclair is Zinclair’s not coping well. I don’t know whether she’s got a problem of eyes. Then the supervisor took it to the social worker. The social worker took it over to take Zinclair to the hospital only to find that Zinclair had an ENT problem of sinus of which they end up affecting your eyes and ears.

So fortunately enough towards end of 2012 Zinclair was able to get the spectacles. She’s coping very well. She has self-esteem now. By that time your eyes are even starting to be squinty. Children were starting to say, “Yeah, Zinclair, your eyes are not well.” But today she appears very open and is very boldly and proud with those spectacles. So when she comes from school coming to me to make home ecs, “Gogo, I have my spectacles on my eyes. Can we start to write now?”

JORDAN: When we were talking before without spending two hours with someone sometimes you don’t notice. These kids were abandoned, they were abused, they were left in toilets. The police brought them because they were abused. And they had other good people. But having someone for two hours they’re noticing that they can’t walk right, that they need different medical problems and that that in turn is having a knock-on effect of changing. And Elizabeth is going to tell us one of her great stories about, about one of the kids that you take care of.

KHUMALO: Granny program is to nurture children starting from zero to six years giving them love, bonding, and attachment. I was having a child when I come to, to Othandweni Family Care Centre with a name of Nebocham. Nebocham was plus to minus… plus minus two. Nebocham was a very sad child. She was so angry. She couldn’t speak to anyone. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t play. She was like shut down. She didn’t communicate with anyone. And when I came to her life I start, I start by giving her bonding attachment. I start giving her love that she, she need most. And Nebocham… she was a very happy child.

Now she’s been adopted, being very happy, communicating with everyone, talking, eating, playing. She was very happy. And, I was very sad when she was adopted but also happy because she was supposed to have a home. Yes.

JORDAN: Patience is the social worker and that, kind of oversees a lot of these things. And can you talk about when the, these isolated kids, these kids who have been marginalized? When they come first in before they get the love here some of them are angry. Tell me how you see the isolation and the marginalization come out.

MOKGADI: Okay, I think it is actually twofold. You find children who have experienced such social disconnect that upon your first interaction with the child they are withdrawn, sad, blank, and unemotional. And it has taken, it goes back to social interaction or social connectedness that is consistent and planned is very important in a child’s life, especially in those early stages because children begin to learn that kind of behavior.

They open up. They become trusting especially if it’s done on a consistent level with an elderly person, a person regularly. So I’ve seen children blossom from when they came in initially to be, you know, a child that me or you find at home.

And I have a story about I used to work at head office because I used to process children. Mothers would come and give in the child, or children, up for adoption. There was this young girl who came a place about three hours drive from Johannesburg. Very young lady, she has just recently graduated and she had an 18-month-old baby. And she had a relationship with a guy from Cameroon, almost the same age, and her parents disapproved of that relationship for whatever reasons.

But, then she fell pregnant again with a second child. And when she came through to, to me was to say, “Ma, there is no way that I can tell my parents about the fact that I’m pregnant again. It will kill them. I, I cannot. And I don’t want to have an abortion because I come from, I have very strong Christian values. So the only way is to say let me come to Child Welfare because I know that you guys deal with, you provide adoption services and I know that this child at least will have a home.”

Now, normally you work with a person throughout their pregnancy just to try to explore other options because we say adoption is the last, last option. But I mean it was like that the last time. And by the time I moved to Othandweni the child was born. I placed the child at Othandweni.

So, I’m trying to say to you that I was exposed to a pre- and post-social connected process along this child’s life. And I one would see that, could see that a social disconnect at times starts intra-, intrauterine because not to me it says even the umbilical cord it doesn’t feed the food only, you know, the nutrients. It feeds emotions into a child. This child was very withdrawn and was not thriving. And you could see that she has developmental lacks but she’s refusing to do anything. It’s like, “I mean my own mother did not want me. Why should I bother with you?” That kind of thing.

And we used to have work with a team of doctors, and pediatricians, and occupational therapists — specialists. They have their own practices but they formed an NGO called [] Foundation. So they keep their services to our organization. We used to have regular meetings with the gogos and then with them.

JORDAN: Tell us what happened to that baby.

MOKGADI: And over time because she worked with [a gogo]. It took time, you know? At the age two at least could walk, could talk, could smile. Last month she was adopted in Finland and she was a nice, happy child that if I were to tell you this background and you see her you wouldn’t believe me.

So it means, social relationships and social connectedness are very, very crucial especially during a children’s early stages. And if there’s anything that we need to take maybe from this conference is to say how do we best bolster this initiative or this movement, as it were, and humanize it and take it forward.

JORDAN: It’s such a great story. Thandi, I wanted to come back to you to just tell us a little bit about your story, about, I mean did you grow up in a any disadvantaged way, and how did you end up working with these kids in this home?

TWALA: Fortunately I grew up in a family that was very much supportive to me.
I got married when I was 19 years. I became isolated when I got divorced at the age of 20. It was the end of the world. But with the support of my family, my mom saw that I liked kids so when they were playing in the street I’ll call them to come and play at my grass and then I wanted to be a teacher. I would instruct through this voice of mine. I would be, “Hey, right, man. Come on.” My mom said, “Now this one because we’ve got this problem of coming back from the marriage . So she’s going through the ACTs because it’s like it like to teach. Then I done those courses of ACT at grade R level, attended Montessori. I worked for two schools in Johannesburg central. It happens in 2008 I took a retirement.

I was working for the preschool. I’m starting now to demand more monies from the owners. Can I take a break and ask myself really what do I want?

So in 2010 I start volunteer at Othandweni putting back to this community. Fortunately. That is how I entered Othandweni, providing those children with the love and the knowledge that I’ve got from the ACT for a child development skills.

JORDAN: So you first started volunteering at this home with orphan…


JORDAN: And what made you walk in the door the first day?

TWALA: What made me to go back I felt that these children needs as a community to assist. Because that’s how we came there permanently. They’re part of six staff members. But these children — there are 30 of them — so they need us as people from the community to come in assist these full-time care workers so that they can get love, each and every one of them.

JORDAN: Can you just paint a picture of the day now when you go in? So it’s Monday morning…

TWALA: Okay. Since I’m working there I’ve got a crisis when it’s Friday to say bye to my grandchildren because you can feel them that those two days for them is like two years not going to see me. That means that I’ll say, “The manager have sent me to go and arrange something for you, Zinclair. Gogo is going to come later. If I didn’t come I’ll see you on Monday, okay,” but you’ll see that the child is not feeling well. On Monday when I come first thing before you go and take off their uniform, “Gogo, you promised that you’re going to come. Did you come when I was sleeping?” I would start saying, “Yes, I did but you were sleeping. Yeah, and what do you want?” “Please, Gogo, don’t go. Stay.”

That bonding and attachment of ours, even I at home when it’s weekend I’m not friendly. My kids will ask, “Mommy, you look sad. What’s wrong?” “I’m missing my kids at Othandweni.”

JORDAN: Elizabeth, tell us what you do. When you go in there in the morning you have. I mean is it a bunch of kids and then you take yours out? And what do you do for two hours?

KHUMALO: When I go there in the morning, when I go there in the morning I greet all the children. They come, obviously they come running because, you know, all of them they are attached to us because we love them all. It’s not only those two. It’s about all the children in the center.

So they come running, greeting me with, “How, hi, hi, Gogo.” “You’re looking smart today, you know.”

Then you give them that hug because they need this hug.

And then we take them to, to change them, to give them shoes, to give them food, to feed them. Each Gogo has two child doing one-on-one with, with one child for two hours. So at that time you take your child and feed them doing eye contact with your child so that this bonding keep on, you know.

You don’t just feed the child. You speak with the child. You play with the child. And then, yeah, then after that we go for our daily activities with the child. We help them to reach their milestones according to their ages.

JORDAN: And what do your own kids and grandkids think of your other grandkids?

KHUMALO: Oh, my grandkids and my kids they… like, they also love these children because always when you come back home you, you speak about, “You know, so-and-so was doing this.”
Then they also become connected to these children, like they even ask, “When are you going to bring them to come and visit us?” Or, “Can you please bring them over the weekend to come and visit us?” So in that case they become connected, even if when I tell them, “My child has been adopted,” they feel sad. They feel sad like I’m sad and they’re also sad.

JORDAN: It’s such an amazing program to have two hours every day. I’m going we’re going to go to the audience for questions. If anybody has any questions for Patience, who is, oversees a lot of this, and Thandi and Elizabeth.

MOKGADI: But I just wanted to say—

JORDAN: Go ahead.

MOKGADI: Yeah. Also, yeah, just wanted to say the program is actually highly focused and educationally innovative as well. These ladies were trained in child care and in early childhood development, and, and obviously how to write and keep journals because they write just daily or every week at least that they have with their children, and then so that by the time comes month end we take their reports and are able to send them through to whoever that you work with.

Now, the focus is on six individualized development domains that are important. Obviously in child development, which is the cognitive skills, fine motor, gross motor, self-help, social, and emotional. So it’s not a program of bonding with a child for the sake of bonding. There’s an educational component to it.

And it says it is a fact that children who are in institutions, by their nature of their staffing, staff don’t have time to have normal social interactions with these kids. I mean you’re talking about your warm hugs, kisses, storytelling, and even general laughter. There is no time for staff to do that.

So this initiative has come very handy in assisting our children to socially connect themselves and lessen the isolation that they would have felt if they had not been exposed to this program.

JORDAN: Go ahead, Thandi. And if anyone has a question you can raise your hand.

TWALA: Okay, in addition to that, I was trying to say, as it’s talking about this six domains of development. As we work there at the center we know that financially we rely on donors. We end up as gogos making some toys from the waste that we have, e.g., we can make a toy of a mobile with a hanger, a hanger rack that you’re using in your home. We take all cities, you put them there on the map. You take some different kinds of strips of paper, it’s for coloring for the child. That one it goes for a cognitive because a child would want to know, “What is this city?” Those colors are making their minds to find out there are different things that are there in that mobile. Then we go back and look at the play dough. That’s play dough. It’s assists them for their gross motor, fine and gross, muscles to grow. When they make Play-Doh with a flower, a ??? in the house.

Then you go to toilet rolls, papers that are, are left over on the toilet paper. It’s finished.
We can make a train with it, a fish. At times we are not even aware as parents that one makes a visual and vision of a child to be more observant because it goes in a straight line.

So for a child to make sure that even in the balance of a child the other one can pull that choice of trains, the other one is following it, so that you can find the balance for the child. So many things help us even as gogos. Through training of these children we are now even putting it back to our grandchildren at homes because at times we just used to take a child and say, “Oh, my grandchild, hello baby.” But not even a way the development of a child at six months what your child is supposed to do. You only take a box and put a child inside. “See there, gogos. Give him your foot.”

You don’t understand that child is having a hearing, a problem, you see.
But by making all the development milestone with her you end up finding if there’s a problem earlier, then you can take a child to the hospital, or you can make sure that the child can be attended in time.

JORDAN: What are the kinds of problems you’ve found just by spending time there? You said that the sinus problem that was actually blocking sight. What else have you found?

TWALA: At times you’ll find that the child doesn’t respond. The child does not say something, it’s a little bit slower. But the child has denial of not wanting to do something else. So you need there to find some psych to be involved so that the child, you can know as gogo how to engage with that child. You need not to be angry. You must go with his own pace so that he must come back to your theme and run with your rhymes as you want her to do something.

JORDAN: Oh my God. I’m running with your rhymes. That’s fantastic. That’s great. But it is time. I think the really fascinating and different thing here is the time they spend.

QUESTION: Has this program been replicated because to me one of the beauties of this program is that there are not a lot-, there are not a lot of jobs that say, you know, “Must be over 50 and have worked at home,” or whatever the job, the job requirement to be a grandmother. And as you said it is an educational job. But I think it’s wonderful because it’s also providing, it’s providing meaning for your lives as well as meaning for the lives of the children. And, and I wonder if the government has stepped in to pick this up, or it’s been replicated in other places.

JORDAN: I think Patience.

MOKGADI: Just to say, it has not been replicated as it is.
I know that as we’re here see the management is speaking with government in terms of our business plan for the following year to obviously ask for funding. And the Granny program is not funded by government. Let me start there. It’s funded by other people. There’s a need for it to, to be replicated in other children’s homes, you know. Like Child Welfare it’s with often when you have another children’s home, Princess Alice, and there’s, it has been identified as a home that where we need to use the Othandweni program. But it hasn’t. I think the fact that it was still testing you would tell us to see whether it should be working. And it is is working wonders. Obviously there’s a need to replicate that but it hasn’t yet.

JORDAN: I just wanted to add one thing on that. Because people are living longer and they’re healthier into their-, 70s is nothing anymore, and, and 80s is really not, that a variation of this is starting to take hold but not in this way.

Like they’re doing literacy in the States that they’re having, they’re trying to use the Internet to match up people that have time who can teach others to read. But nothing to this extent that I’ve heard. But I think this is just the beginning of using people who are retired to help younger people. But we are running out of time. There’s so much but you’re going to stay here. I just want to start very quickly and go through the line about how has this program changed your life? Then we’ll end with, with you. Just quickly.

MOKGADI: I think basically with me I have, yes, I’m a social worker professionally but I worked in the private sector for a long time. And for my background was marketing, communications, CSI. And I started as your conventional social worker when I was younger and I came back just a few years ago. And it has been very rewarding. Maybe the fact that I’m older, you know, to work with children and young people as well, especially the mothers. To understand where they come from, the issues that they face.

Maybe if I was a social worker younger then I would have been more, I wouldn’t have been as non-judgmental as I am now. So it has assisted me a lot, yes.

JORDAN: Oh, that’s interesting. It made you non-judgmental.


JORDAN: Elizabeth, how has this work as a gogo changed you?

KHUMALO: It, it has changed me a lot in such a way. It has changed me a lot in such a way I’ve experienced that granny’s love is pure and genuine because they have experience in life. And in that light I feel that Granny programs should be sponsored and supported further because the future of each country is in the hands of the youth.

JORDAN: Well said.

TWALA: For me it has opened my self-esteem more. I was starting to lose focus and balance. But since I was this granny I am a humble understanding person and I don’t want anybody to feel any pain. It seems as if, if I did have everybody could stay, stay on my shoulders or sleep on them.

JORDAN: Well said. I don’t want to feel anybody’s pain. That’s—I mean I don’t want anyone to feel pain. Thank you. Another fantastic panel. Thanks to the gogos.