Malibongwe Betela (20), who lives in Motherwell in the Eastern Cape, decided to have an early night on 6 July 2020. Little did he know her life would never be the same again.
“I went to fetch my supper at my aunt’s place – she lives about 10 minutes away with my mother and they told me they had food for me. Then I went home and got into bed early, between 7 and 8 pm.
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Sometime later I woke up suddenly and I instantly knew something was very wrong. It was the middle of winter but the room was so hot. Then I realised what was going on: the whole place was engulfed in flames. There are electric cables on one side of the bed and I think that is what caused the fire.
I jumped out of bed and tried to call out to my neighbours but no one came to help me. It was as if I’d woken up in hell. I was choking from the smoke and there was no way out. I tried to open the door but the handle was burning hot – so hot that I burnt my hands when I tried to grip it.
The flames were coming and coming. Next thing I knew my face and neck were on fire and I was in so much pain it felt like I was dying.I kept calling for help but no one could hear my screams. Eventually I managed to force the door open but by then the flames had reached my back and I was on fire.
I ran outside, a human torch, and fell to the ground. My neighbours came rushing out and poured water on me. They said they’d noticed the fire but had assumed no one was in there.
My neighbour put me in his car and rushed me to Motherwell Community Health Centre. The medical staff found I had sustained second-degree burns and they weren’t equipped to help me. I was then taken to Dora Nginza Provincial Hospital in Gqeberha. Doctors said I had serious burns and I might not make it through the night.
I did make it but I was in bad shape. I had to undergo two skin-graft surgeries. Doctors took skin from my thighs and used it for my hands and back, and they also performed surgery on my head and face.
I remained in the intensive-care unit for three months. My entire face was swollen. I couldn’t eat or swallow anything and needed to be fed through a tube.
Eventually I was discharged but returned regularly to the outpatient department for wound dressings.
I experienced so much pain throughout that process but going home was worse. People who I thought were my friends would mock me and laugh at me. Strangers would stare and laugh. I experienced anxiety every time I passed a group of people because I knew I’d be ridiculed.
Sometimes when I would go to a tuckshop, I would purposely turn my head away so people wouldn’t see my scars. At least the pandemic meant I could wear a mask, which hid some of the damage to my face.
One day I just came to the realisation that I couldn’t live like this anymore. I couldn’t hide any longer. I wanted to break free from how people viewed me. I wanted to embrace my scars as they were now my reality.
I went on Facebook and searched for people who were like me. I looked for burn survivors who had accepted their scars. I found Qaphela Gobodo. I saw that he was comfortable with his scars and we happened to be in the same age group.
I asked myself: if he can embrace his scars then why should I not be able to do the same? I did not do this to myself.
I gave myself a pep talk. I said that I was okay with my appearance and I would no longer concern myself with how others viewed me. I will not allow others to look down on me.
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I have since met other burn survivors and they have shared motivational messages with me. I also shared my story on Facebook and some of the people in my community read it and reached out to me, encouraging me to accept my appearance and saying they will support me.
I am hoping to apply to college when I am stronger to study business management so I can focus on my future.
I have chosen to love and accept myself. I have a mother and two brothers who love me and I am grateful to still be alive.”