The terrible burns she suffered as a baby may have left her scarred on the outside, but Itumeleng has risen above her challenges to become a motivational speaker, businesswoman, and author
She’s used to people staring at her wherever she goes. The scars that cover her face, arms and torso have always made her feel like an outcast. Many people with such life-changing injuries would hide away from the prying world but not this feisty, determined woman.
Itumeleng Sekhu was just a baby when she was badly burnt. She lost an ear, fingers and her right arm after a candle fell over and set their house on fire. But while fire may have ravaged parts of her body, she’s embracing it and turning it into one of the many enterprises that occupy her life. She’s started a candle-making business. “I had a phobia of candles and I wanted to face that fear and get over it,” Itumeleng tells DRUM.
She’s employed a relative to help her make the candles. “We custom-make them when ordered.” The 31-year-old is also expanding her business by starting her own bra line, and a wine brand. “There’s a song by Hillsong Worship called New Wine. No matter what you go through in life, you’ll be a brand-new wine,” she says.
She’s still in the process of naming her wine business, but it has a spiritual meaning for her. After a traumatic childhood that saw her in and out of hospital for treatment for her third-degree burns, she wants to celebrate life. “This is the time for me to be something brand new. I believe everyone was born for such a time, to take a deep breath.” She’s living her life to the fullest, but it hasn’t been easy for her to get to this point.
Itumeleng has had 104 surgeries since the fire and has tried to commit suicide three times. “I had low self-esteem. I thought I’d never find a boyfriend as a young girl,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a normal life.” Now she’s an ambassador for Dove beauty soap, runs an NGO in her name and works as a motivational speaker.
But the job she’s proudest of is being mom to five-year-old twin boys. “My biggest fear is for my kids to be laughed at because of me, because I know how that feels,” she says. “I don’t want them to be mocked at school because of how I look.” It’s taken Itumeleng years to be comfortable in her skin.
She was just 11 months old when the fire broke out. Her mother, Evelyn (now 66), was having supper with her four older sons in the lounge while baby Itumeleng was sleeping in a bedroom. “They’d lit a candle because back in 1989 few black people had electricity,” Itumeleng says. “They started smelling smoke. When my mother found me burning, she went crazy.” Evelyn rushed Itumeleng to hospital where she was treated for burns.
“I had a white glove on one hand and every day one finger would literally drop off until I was left with one thumb,” she recalls. She lost four fingers, her right arm and an ear, but her scars are more than skin deep. “My dad divorced my mother because of me. It wasn’t something he wanted to handle at that time.” Her father, she says, blamed her mother for the fire. “My father’s a traditional man from Giyani, and he doesn’t talk about things.
I tried to build a relationship with him, but he wasn’t granting me the support I wanted. To him, support was money and that wasn’t what I was looking for. “I’m not angry at him,” she continues. “We just don’t need to have a relationship and I’ve made peace with that.” Her mother is her pillar of strength. “She’s such an amazing woman. She’s very strong.
Recently I was rushed to hospital because I have low blood pressure. She just came running, and she’s always been that person for me.” To help her heal from the trauma, Itumeleng started a foundation in 2015 aimed at boosting the self-esteem of young girls. “My scars are more external, but a lot of people have a lot of scars within. “I realised that young girls had a lot of scars and I wanted to heal them and remind them that they’re great,” she says.
Over the next few months she plans to visit 250 schools across three provinces where she’ll share her story in a series of motivational talks. Over the past 30 years she’s had many challenges, yet Itumeleng has never gone for counselling. “I didn’t see any psychologists because I didn’t want someone who’d tell me something they learnt at school.” She says she wanted to speak to someone who understood her pain.
“I met Christ in 2007 and He was the only person who knew exactly what I went through. It brought so much self-love, purpose and a sense of being vital. “It made me start loving myself.” In 2017 Itumeleng penned her trials and tribulations in a memoir.
After completing her BA degree in audio-visual communications, she worked as a content producer at Metro FM. “I was working with Sibusiso Leope (DJ Sbu), who encouraged me to write a book,” she says. The DJ and his radio audience wanting her to share her story was the push she needed to publish her book, titled What Do You See? “I wanted to tell my story, but I’m not a writer.
I’m not here to tell people about my life all the time. But this was something they wanted to know about.” It took Itumeleng three years to pen her life story and she doesn’t regret putting herself out there – she’s been flooded with messages of support since publishing the book. She’s also been offered help in the form of plastic surgery and prosthetic hands but will hear nothing of it. “When I was in primary school, I had that fake hand.
But I took it off in high school. It was just useless,” she says. “I don’t want anything. I’m happy the way I am. That’s the thing people need to know – just be happy the way you are. At some point I wasn’t happy, but now I’ve accepted myself.” People still stare at her when they see her on the street or in a mall, but these days Itumeleng doesn’t let it get to her. “I know why they’re staring,” she says. “When people see me smiling, they know I’m living my best life.