I Am a Survivor
Seventeen-year-old Thalitha Sabile, a serious burn survivor with a prominent scar on her face believes she is now bully-proof, after enduring verbal abuse from schoolmates who took advantage of her low self-esteem, and made disparaging remarks about her face.
Thalitha was born in Cape Town and spent her life in Philippi.
“My mom moved to Cape Town to find a job and she began working as a domestic worker. “She had a child when she was young, but my elder sister was raised in the Eastern Cape by my grandmother. So, when I was born I was alone with my mom. Even though my dad did not stay with us, I saw him from time to time. My childhood was happy. My mom fulfilled perfectly the role of both parents.”
At the age of 5 years old, when her mom gave birth to her third child, Thalitha moved to the Eastern Cape.
“I was too young for anyone to explain to me why I was moving but because it coincided with my brother’s birth I guessed it was because of that. I went to live with my grandmother, older sister and extended family members. I loved it, it was a real family. My mom and I used to visit them twice a year during the school holidays, so I was used to them. It was easy to adapt. I loved the peace and all the deep relationships I had with my family and friends there.”
She completed Grade R and Grade 1 in the Eastern Cape before her grandmother passed away and she returned to Cape Town to live with her mother. Thalitha was now seven-years-old.
A few months after her return, Thalitha suffered a serious burn while playing with her brother.
“I remember that I was playing with my little brother and I noticed my mom preparing porridge and dishing it out into two bowls. I now understand she put them on the table to let them cool down. She briefly left the room and I remember thinking that it was my porridge. I ran, picked it up and I can’t fully remember what happened next but the boiling porridge fell all over my face and neck.”
“I began screaming, the pain was unbearable. My mom came to me immediately. She tried to wash the hot porridge off my face with cold water and she screamed for a neighbor to help us. “The neighbor had a car and he drove us to the nearest clinic.”
Thalitha and her mom waited in the queue at the clinic for a few hours but they received poor service.
“I can’t remember much, except that I was in so much pain for a long time. When the nurse finally saw us, she applied a cream on the burned area, gave me some panado’s and sent me home.”
But Thalitha’s pain did not go away and the burned area on her face began to swell.
“My mom decided to take me to Red Cross Children’s Hospital for further treatment. They admitted me immediately. I stayed in the hospital for two weeks and after that, spent another two-weeks in Sarah Fox Children's Convalescent Hospital.”
“At the time, I didn’t know what was happening to me. The injury was itching and pink. I was scared. My mom sent my brother to the Eastern Cape so she could focus on me. She went to work every day and after work, she would visit me. Her daily visits were comforting. She encouraged me. She said the doctors are doing their best and that I will have my face back again.”
Thalitha has endured several operations to reconstruct her face after she was burned.
“The operations began the first month after the burn and they continued until last year. Three times a year, I would visit the surgeon in the hospital to have interventions to deal with my scar tissue. I wished many times that they could just stop but deep down I knew they were doing it for me. I am still in treatment. But this year they are only doing medical needling.”
Thalitha remembers how naive she was after leaving the hospital for the first time.
“I was so happy to be back home and to be able to go back to school. At that time, I did not fully understand what it meant to have scars on my face. In my mind, everything was normal. “My schoolmates asked me what had happened and everyone was very supportive. My mom kept telling me how beautiful I was and the only thing that I noticed that was different was how some people stared at me in the street.”
However, in Grade 6, when Thalitha was enrolled in a new school, she was challenged by a completely new reality. The predominant languages of the school were English and Afrikaans, which were languages she was not proficient in. In addition, she didn’t know anyone at the school.
“When I got there I didn’t know Afrikaans and my English was poor, I was also the new learner with a scar on her face. There was this group of boys one grade above mine that immediately picked on me. Each break when they saw me, they would call me names like scarface, ugly and plastic face because I used to put tape on the scar on my face to help massage it.”
Thalitha was singled out by bullies because of her scar and they assaulted her with a barrage of verbal insults daily which she never responded to.
“For the first time, I felt like I was different from the others. I felt that I was less and each time they would call me names I would run back to class. It affected my self-esteem badly and it began making me question the loving words of my mom. I was embarrassed and stopped liking myself. I isolated myself from the world and I only made three friends for that entire year and they were supportive towards me.”
Thalitha’s mom encouraged her to report the bullies to teachers and there were times when it got too much and she did. The bullies faced repercussions such as detention and she admits that it had an effect on the bullies, making them think twice about the consequences. But after some time, the ordeal would begin again.
At the beginning of Grade 7, a year after she started at the new school and became a victim of bullying, she changed her response to the vicious taunts about her face.
“During the school holidays, I began talking to myself that I needed to step-up. They picked on me because I was new at the school. I was the easiest person because I didn’t have it in me to fight back. A bully is someone who makes you feel small and is someone trying to boost his or her ego or to satisfy his/her friends. No, I will not be bullied again.”
“I prepared to go back to school by repeating to myself all the encouraging words my mom and my three friends told me. I repeated their words each day to myself. I also kept telling myself positive things like ‘I am beautiful’.”
When Thalitha returned to school, she was happy to know that the bullies no longer attended the school because they were now in high school. This gave her time to fully heal.
“My last year at primary school was awesome, I was top of the class and won some awards.”
“I was ready to go to high school and face any type of bullying again. I was a big girl now and I knew I would fight back. I believe in myself and I believe I can change any situation I’m in.”
When Thalitha started high school, surprisingly she was not picked on.
“In this school my classmates didn’t even ask what happened to my face. They are used to seeing people with scars, I’m no longer the only one. Around me, I have peers that have knife scars, car accident scars even burn scars. I am one of many now.”
Thalitha believes she is now bully-proof.
“I have forgiven my bullies. I forgot their names and even their faces. They wouldn’t know if I had a grudge on them, so what’s the point of not letting go?”
“So many of us let others determine what we are worth. It’s our duty to make that determination ourselves. I now know that there is a range of beauty and every human being is beautiful somehow. Beyond our physical appearance, we all have other much more valuable traits. “Mine are: I am intelligent. I am strong. I am a survivor.”
Thalitha is a Leader’s Quest participant.