It was a typical Sunday for their small family. They woke up early, went to church and came back home, had dinner and she tucked her two kids into bed with a heater in their room to keep them warm.
Tebogo Tsotetsi (35) started smelling burning rubber and when her husband, Kenneth Tsotetsi (35), went to check what it was, he found the children’s room full of smoke. By the end of that night her son, Kutlwano (2), and his brother, Molemo (5), were fighting for their lives in hospital.
Kutlwano died two days later and Molemo sustained 50% burn wounds on his body, including on his head and hands. There was an electrical fault on the socket where the heater was plugged in and it had caused the fire.
It’s been five years since the Tsotetsi family lived their worst nightmare and not a day goes by that they don’t think about that horrific day in July.
In an effort to help her son get the medical care he needs Tebogo Tsotetsi was part of a group that summitted Mount Kilimanjaro, where she faced freezing temperatures and dehydration. The summit was in a bid to raise R2 million for child burn survivors in Gauteng.
Speaking to Move in an interview before the summit, the mom explained that it would be a tough climb for her as she hasn’t been active for long and this would be her first attempt to summit Kili. She prepared her mind and body by training at the Wonderboom Nature Reserve in Pretoria.
When we visit the family home in Soweto, we are greeted with a warm smile by bubbly Molemo, who’s now nine. Wearing a soccer cap over his bald head, which is covered with burn scars, he leads us to the living room and offers us a cooldrink while his mom wraps up a phone call.
Tebogo is a psychologist and life coach and she takes us through the night that changed their lives.
“The door was jammed and we were forced to break it down.” The room was covered with smoke, and the curtains and the twin bed had already caught fire.
“I was relieved when I heard both children coughing and calling out for me to help them, we immediately removed them from the room.” They were rushed to hospital. Kutlwano had 15% burn wounds, but the little boy had inhaled too much smoke.
“Doctors assured me the boys were responding positively to treatment but two days after the incident, my world came crushing down when Kutlwano lost his fight and was declared dead from smoke inhalation,”she says.
Molemo was still fighting for his life in ICU while she was organising his younger brother’s funeral.
“I could not cry. I was forced to be strong and positive because my other son was still fighting for his life. I pleaded with God to spare Molemo’s life. I could not bear the thought of losing both my children.” Their prayers were answered and three months later Molemo was discharged from hospital with burn wounds covering his face.
“He had a lot of questions about his new look, and where his brother was, and why people were staring at him.”
THEIR NEW NORMAL
Because of his burns Molemo had to undergo skin-grafting procedures. “One day in 2017, while watching the news, I learnt about the donation of a Scar Removal Laser machine at the Red Cross [War Memorial] Children’s Hospital.
“This was a state-of-the-art machine, one of its kind on the continent. I looked up the hospital on the internet and some of the services they offered and later called them inquiring as how my son could also be one of the patients who would benefit from the services of the new equipment,”she explains.
Tebogo says the hospital referred her to the Avela Foundation who invited her son to come for an assessment at their hospital in Cape Town. “Because of the backlog at the hospital and the distance between Soweto and Cape Town, Molemo has only gone for three laser-grafting sessions on his face and hands removing all the dead skin cells. The texture of his skin feels better than when he first went under the laser,”she says.
While Molemo was receiving treatment, Tebogo decided to get involved in the Avela Foundation as a volunteer.
“I wanted to help those who were injured and lost their loved ones in fires to get back on their feet and find healing. This is why Tebogo was part of the team from Gauteng that tackled Mount Kilimanjaro.
“Each member was expected to raise R75 000 through concerts, donations and other fundraising initiatives.”
“Through the funds raised, the children affected will be able to have access to the best medical treatment in the country and their parents will be able to receive counselling and be able to rebuild their lives and emotional support them and their children to be able to one day regain their identities and self-esteem beyond their scars.”
The couple has another child, Tlotlo Tsotetsi (3), who was born 18 months after the incident. They got through it as a family. “We prayed together and helped each other get back on our feet.”
In an interview with IOL Tebogo spoke about her summit experience.
“The climb was very challenging, but when you have a goal in your mind, you prepare yourself mentally and physically,” she said.
“Some days were easy, and others were really difficult, where people just wanted to give up. On the last day, that was me. I wanted to give up. The weather was unbearable at -20°C. My backpack and my drinking water were both frozen. When climbing, you have to drink between four and five litres a day – impossible when your water is one giant ice- block, so we were dehydrated. My body was stiff and so, so cold. Even my hair and eyebrows had frozen. But I made a promise to my son, and that kept me going.”