Regaining My Smile, A Tourism Student’s Journey Of Self-Discovery

Regaining My Smile, A Tourism Student’s Journey Of Self-Discovery

[Mentor Stories] At Otolo, we love to hear from our mentors’ stories. Chris Godenir, General Manager of The Peninsula All-Suite Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, having been recognised for his contribution to Hospitality for his leadership, has met Mpho Mokoka, his mentee who enrolled in a six-month mentorship programme as part of her tourism studies at the University of Johannesburg. Here’s Mpho’s story.

Mpho Mokoka practises her smiling every day. Usually, after brushing her teeth, passing by a mirror or anywhere she can see her reflection. “I smile many times in one single day,” she says. “So much that my cheeks often hurt!” 

If you met her now, you might never imagine that this confident 23-year-old could once barely look you in the eye, let alone smile. Since the age of 15, Mpho had become highly self-conscious of her appearance due to a poorly positioned gold overlay on her front tooth. 

“The reason I got one was due to peer pressure,” she explains. “All my friends had it, so it was the coolest thing to get.” As time went on, it proved the exact opposite, severely affecting her self-image and rendering her unwilling to do one of the most fundamental things we humans do: smile. 

Fortunately, this all changed in 2021 after she enrolled in a six-month mentorship programme as part of her tourism studies at the University of Johannesburg. Little did she know that making this decision would lead to an unexpected ‘smile makeover’ that would ultimately change her life. 

Meeting her mentor 

Through the hospitality mentoring platform Otolo, she was paired with Chris Godenir, the General Manager of The Peninsula All-Suite Hotel in Cape Town, who became her assigned mentor. 

“Through our partnership with the Otolo platform, I met with my students online every Friday, creating assignments and providing insight into the wonderful world of hospitality,” he explains. “We also explored deeper themes on leadership, building resilience, and having the courage to be vulnerable in order to connect with others. After all, true connection is what ultimately drives this industry.” 

During these sessions, he quickly took notice of one student in particular who never laughed or smiled — Mpho. 

“Being on video, we didn’t have masks on. From the moment I met her, she never smiled. Her body language was very withdrawn, and she mumbled her words,” he adds. “As I got to know Mpho, she eventually opened up about her personal struggles, revealing that one of the reasons she never smiled was due to her front teeth.” 

Chris explains that he immediately knew that he wanted to help her find her smile again. “I asked her if she would be willing to take up the offer to fix her teeth if I could find someone to help, and her response was a resounding ‘yes!” 

With Mpho’s permission, he reached out to a long-time friend and guest of The Peninsula Hotel: Dr Norman Cahi, a renowned South African dentist. 

A smile makeover 

“When Chris informed me about a bright young woman severely lacking in self-confidence due to her front teeth, I immediately agreed to see her and do what I could to help,” Dr Cahi explains. 

After meeting with Mpho, he arranged for a consultation at his offices — the Cahi Dental & Prosthodontic Practice in Parktown North. 

“On her first appointment, Mpho cried as she told me her story, which touched me immensely,” he explains. “To see her in distress was heart-breaking. I could feel the emotional pain she had been harbouring for so long.” 

“Up until that point, smiling was so difficult,” she explains.” I had many worries about obtaining a grant to complete my studies and finding a job with no experience while stressing about my appearance. I was also diagnosed with depression which required a lot of effort in looking after my mental health.” 

During Mpho’s dental procedure, Dr Cahi explains that he removed the gold, cleaned and reshaped the tooth and had his experienced technician create a metal-free crown to match the colour to her newly cleaned teeth. 

“The pre- and post-op photographs speak for themselves,” he adds. “Her joy, delight, and exhilaration will stay with me forever. She’s already a strong young woman, but I think her new transformation will make her unstoppable, allowing her to become the best version of herself.” 

For the past four decades, Dr Cahi has dedicated his life to oral health care in South Africa, pioneering teeth whitening and cosmetic dentistry across the country. Widely known as the ‘dentist to the stars’, he insists that the secret to his success is giving people from all walks of life the best smile possible. 

“I’ve always felt it necessary to give back to those far less fortunate than myself. In doing so, I hope to encourage other skilled professionals to extend their talents and gifts to others, especially to those who are most vulnerable in society.” 

More than just a smile 

While some might feel somewhat embarrassed to have others making a fuss over their teeth, Mpho insists that she was completely overjoyed with the opportunity. 

“I couldn’t believe that they were offering me,” she says. “One day, when masks are no longer needed, and we can see each other’s smiles, I will wear mine with pride because it reminds me of all the goodness in this world. I cannot thank Chris, my mentor, and Dr Cahi enough for bringing back my smile.” 

Having officially completed her tourism studies, Mpho will soon be interviewing for an HR internship programme through the Dream Hotels & Resorts Group, which incorporates The Peninsula Hotel. 

“I was finally able to meet Mpho in person this month, and I was thrilled to see that smile!” adds Chris. “We’d like to continue supporting her on her journey, which extends well beyond regaining the confidence to smile again. Mpho’s smile makeover forms part of her greater transformation of having the courage to connect to others, building trust and having the resilience to overcome further challenges.” 

Through this experience, he hopes to inspire other leaders in hospitality to use their skills, knowledge and resources to support others in need and to assist in transforming their lives. 

“We are an industry that has always cared about one another, and I believe that it is within this spirit that we will continue to accomplish great things and build a brighter future for all.”

Written by Chris Godenir, General Manager at The Peninsula All-Suite-Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa – For his Mentee, Mpho Mokoka

For more information on how to use your skills productively as a hospitality mentor via Otolo, click here