After a life-threatening accident, many people who survived burns still feel a great deal of emotional pain long after their physical suffering has passed. Mbalentle Tom (21), a third-year politics student at the University of Johannesburg, almost dropped out of school owing to abuse at the hands of peers because of her appearance.
Tom was only three-years old when she was involved in a devastating car crash in the Free State, leaving her with severe injuries.
She endured complicated chest and head surgeries. “In 2006, issues arose throughout my surgeries, as I started to have breathing and other difficulties,” she says.
“My family had to take me to the Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town for more screenings, and I was discharged with a tube in my nose. The tube was then removed the following year.”
School was a nightmare
When she was old enough to attend school, the teasing started with her curious peers asking why she had a tube in her nose.
Things got worse when she attended primary school in her native Cofimvaba. “They never missed an occasion to point out my flaws and differences. This made my primary school years difficult,” she says.
She tells Health For Mzansi that she even started bunking school due to the bullying. She felt like she was alone in a dark corridor.
“I would lie at home claiming that our teacher was absent for the whole week and therefore there would be no school for grade 3s.”
Finding beauty in her scars
Eventually, her lies caught up with her. Her grandfather, Tiltoni Khalo, discovered her web of deceit and she was subsequently beaten for doing so.
Tom says that ever since she was beaten, she has gained a thicker skin. She eventually made friends with her books since she had no one to speak to.
“Their negative opinions of me kept me going. But in grade seven I said to myself, ‘Mbali you are unique’ and others will constantly remind you of that, but it should not define your destiny. The way others see you should motivate you to work hard.”
The self-talk worked and soon she was top of her class, eventually earning some respect from her peers.
Climbing yet another peak
As soon as she dealt with her haters in primary school, she realised that the next phase was high school, triggering even more fears of being bullied.
“In 2016, when I began high school, my fears resurfaced since I was beginning a new adventure, meeting new people, and interacting in a new atmosphere – making it difficult for me to acclimatise because I would often question how others see me and what they are saying about me.”
Despite the pity-filled looks she received in school, she was able to persevere and do her work.
“At some point, I will always be thankful to God for my life; he decided to make me unique because he recognised that unique and unusual things are more beautiful and intriguing,” she says.
Everyone’s path through life is unique
Tom aspired to be a nurse as a child. She says she wanted to offer people a second shot at life, as others had given her one. However, science was not her main interest.
“My scars remind me that I am beautiful, ndiyi ntyatyambo entle [the beautiful flower] that is blooming as my parents envisioned. Moreover, they constantly instill confidence in me and the ‘you can do it’ attitude.”
Tom did her first year at Walter Sisulu University at Nelson Mandela Drive, Mthatha campus in 2019 before enrolling at the University of Johannesburg. Unfortunately she dropped out due to health complications.
She adds that her skin became itchy, particularly when it was hot, and that she had difficulty breathing, but things have improved since then.
Tom has made it her mission to remain positive and resolute. She is focused on her studies and is working on becoming a motivational speaker for burn victims.
“I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and I stopped wondering why people look at me. I realised that there would always be people who want to hear my story, and others who want to assist. I made the best decision of my life by choose books over bullies. Now that I’m at peace.”
According to Tom, the Eastern Cape and Cofimvaba in particular, need further development. She cites a resource centre and offices for youth’s social development as examples.
“In rural areas, children are often raised by illiterate parents who are unaware of how other elements of life operate, such as who you talk to when you’re depressed or sad, where you go, why, and when.
“I believe it might help reduce the number of teenagers who commit suicide due to anxiety and abandonment.”
She feels that in the sphere of education, she would be able to interact with children and adolescents who are battling with insecurities.
“The main goal is to help them develop in every way. I’m aiming to make more public appearances and spread awareness.”