She's used to people staring at her wherever she goes and the scars that cover her face, arms and torso have made her feel like an outcast all her life.
Itumeleng Sekhu has never known a time when life was simple. She was just a baby when she was badly burnt after a candle fell over and set her family home on fire, causing her to lose an ear, several fingers and her right arm. Yet Itumeleng isn’t the kind of person to sit at home feeling sorry for herself.
Many people with such life-changing injuries would hide away from the world – but not this feisty, determined woman. Fire may have ravaged her body, but she’s turned the very object that caused the blaze into one of the many enterprises that occupy her life. Itumeleng has started a candle-making business because, she says, “I had a phobia of candles and I wanted to face that fear and get over it.” She’s employed a relative to help her make the candles and the pair custommake it to order.
Itumeleng (31) is also expanding her business by starting her own bra line, as well as a wine label. “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 still has to name her wine business, but the enterprise 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.” Though she’s living her life to the fullest now, it hasn’t been easy for her to get to this point. Itumeleng has had 104 surgeries since the fire and has survived three suicide attempts. “I had low self-esteem. And as a young girl, I thought I’d never find a boyfriend,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a normal life.”
She was 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 that my kids will be laughed at because of me,” she says. “I know how that feels and I don’t want them to be mocked too.”
Itumeleng was 11 months old when the fire broke out. Her mom, Evelyn (now 66), was having supper with Itumeleng’s four older brothers in the lounge of their home in Hammanskraal near Pretoria while she was asleep in a bedroom. “They’d lit a candle because back then we didn’t have electricity,” Itumeleng says.
“They started smelling smoke. When my mother found me burning, she went crazy.” Evelyn rushed her daughter to hospital where she was treated – but the situation was dire. “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 says.
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 what happened to me. It wasn’t something he wanted to handle.” Her father, she says, blamed her mother for the fire and things between them have always been strained.
“I tried to build a relationship with him but he wouldn’t grant 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 adds. “We just don’t have a relationship and I’ve made peace with that.” Her mother’s always been 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 and she just came running. She’s always been that person for me.” To help her heal from the trauma, Itumeleng started a foundation in 2015 aimed at boosting young girls’ self-esteem.
“My scars are more external, but a lot of people have many scars within. “I want to help them to heal and remind them that they’re great because a lot of people are dying inside.” 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 more than 100 corrective surgeries and credits her faith in God for helping her endure the pain and trauma. “He’s the only one who knows exactly what I went through. My love for Him helped me develop a sense of self-love. It helped me find a purpose and to know that I’m vital.”
She doesn’t want to talk about her twins’ father, except to say things didn’t work out. She’s a devoted single mom now. And she’ll always be grateful to him for giving her her boys, the greatest joy in her life. In 2017 Itumeleng penned her trials and tribulations in a memoir.
After completing her BA degree in audio-visual communications at the University of Johannesburg, she worked as a content producer at Metro FM. “I worked with Sbusiso 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 others wanted to know about.” It took Itumeleng the better part of three years to write her life story and she doesn’t regret putting herself out there – she’s been flooded with messages of support since the publication of the book.
She’s also been offered help in the form of plastic surgery and prosthetic hands – but she’ll hear nothing of it. “When I was in primary school, I had a fake hand but I took it off in high school because 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.When people see me smiling, they know I’m living my best life."