It's been 20 years since that fateful day when Kimberly, her uncle and baby brother were injured when a paraffin stove exploded and caused their home in an informal settlement to catch alight.
“I was about to turn 13 years old when the shack, we called home caught alight. I was the one who got seriously burnt because I was the last one to get out of the house, “she says.
After years of hiding her scars and being self-conscious, Kimberly Malope is embracing that she looks different and is currently helping other women who are burn survivors to accept how they look and come to terms with their reality.
“For the longest time, I covered my scars and didn’t want to take pictures,” she says. “But I had to accept that I will not change, and no matter how many surgeries I can have, somehow I will still have scars.”
And since she has accepted herself as she is, the burn survivor is living her best life.
“I told myself that I was living my life beyond my scars and now I am not going to allow society to define what is beauty to me anymore,” she tells DRUM.
Her story is nothing short of inspiration now, but it wasn’t always the case as Kimberly was teased by other children growing up. And even as an adult, it was very hard for her to get a job because of how she looked.
“Because I didn’t have money to further my studies after matric, I went to look for a job, and a lot of companies didn’t want to hire me because I looked different.”
Kimberly who sought counselling 15 years after the incident that changed her life is grateful to have a family who supported her during her toughest times. “My family have always been my biggest supporters and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
She laughs when she tells us that it took quite some time for her to get used to people staring at her and that when she’d tell her younger brother about the stares, he would say: “you just stare back.”
“In 2015, I was going through a lot, at first it was work-related stuff, but I came to a breaking point. For some reason I wasn’t copying and that is when I started going for counselling,” she says.
The mother of one says she wasn’t aware she’d bottled up so much inside for years and that when she started seeking professional help, it felt like a load had been lifted off her shoulders.
“I wanted to share everything that had happened, and I did,” Kimberly says. “It really helped me a lot and even now when I go through stuff, I always remember what I learned during that time.”
And since getting help to deal with her issues, Kimberly became even more motivated to share her story with others and encourage them to live life because things do get better.
“I am all about encouraging others that life goes on and things will be fine. Bad times don’t last.”
Even though he scars made it difficult for her to get a job, Kimberly finally landed a receptionist position at Diplomat SA. She knew that this was her opportunity to work her way up the corporate ladder. And nine years later she is a recruitment specialist for the company that saw the potential in her.
“I applied at the University of Johannesburg for hospitality management, with no idea of how I was going to pay my tuition fees. And, by the grace of God, I applied for a bursary literally the same day it was closing, and I got it,” she says. “But the bursary was only going to pay half of my fees.”
“And months into my studies, my mom lost her job and I had to look for a part-time job to help me pay for the rest of my fees. After being turned down by different companies and retail shops because of my scars, I finally came across a pamphlet that said Diplomatic SA was looking for a disabled receptionist.”
After she got the job, she figured it would be better to enrol part-time for her studies since she was working full time. Sadly, UJ told her she couldn’t do that as her course was a full-time course.
“I then decided to go register with UNISA for an HR course. I love working with people and HR was just the perfect fit,” she says.
As soon as she started her studies with UNISA, Kimberly saw this as the perfect opportunity to involve herself in the HR side of the company. “I asked my manager if I can work at HR for a week or two since I was studying towards that qualification.”
Even though her manager said no initially, she never forgot Kimberly’s request because a year later she told her she could assist at HR for a month and then go back to her old job.
“I saw this as an opportunity and I said this was my way in,” she says.
She worked hard and it paid off because she was soon hired as an HR trainer. “That is how I got into HR and now I am a recruitment specialist, “she tells Drum. “It has been a long journey.
Kimberly says her life’s challenges also motivated her to connect with other burn survivors. Which is why she decided to join the National Burn Association of South Africa. After being a member for years, the association approached her to be an ambassador alongside other survivors.
“Sharing my story has helped other burn survivors to be able to accept their reality and also open up about their struggles,” she says.
“I joined the National Burn Association of South Africa years back, as it was a safe space for people who have been through what I have experienced. That is when I started getting comfortable with my scars. And now I am one of their ambassadors,” she laughs.
Kimberly, who is also a part-time motivational speaker, is highly passionate about making a difference in people’s lives and wants to touch people’s hearts in one way or another – even if it's just her living her life, authentically. “Now and again I get invited to come and talk. It has been a great journey because it also helped me grow as a person,” she says. “I believe I inspire people every day not only when I am talking to them, but by just being myself and living my life.”
Kimberly who has a 10-year-old daughter from a previous long-term relationship says dating has not been easy, because society still sees physical beauty as the in thing. “Dating such a challenge that I’ve actually given up and told myself if my prince or king is coming, they will find me waiting for them,” she says with a laugh.
“It used to bother me I won’t lie, but now I have made peace with it.”
“I have been in relationships before and I have a beautiful daughter,” she says with a smile. “She is so beautiful that people get shocked and ask if she really is my daughter.”
The proud mom says some of the challenges she faced as a child are still hounding her, however, she’s just gotten used to them.
“Unfortunately, all the things that I have faced while growing up have not changed. I still find people looking at me when I go out. People are still staring, but I am so used to it that I forget why they’re staring.”
Kimberly says though there is still a stigma that is faced by burn survivors, things are not as bad as they use to be thanks to the awareness raised by the media. “We have accepted ourselves. But we can’t make other people accept us. All we can do is create awareness and help other people accept themselves too,” she says.