Writing My Story
Through forgiveness and compassion, Thina Kambi has transformed her experience of tragedy and loss into a life of self-love and acceptance.
Thina (18) was born in Gugulethu and lived with her grandmother and siblings.
“I have lived with my grandmother since I was born. I have an older brother who is 19 and my little sister who is 11 years old. My grandmother raised us. My mother and father did not stay with us, and I never asked where my parents were. I loved my grandmother.”
“Back then my mother was not working, so I thought that’s why my grandmother took care of us. My mother was 18 when she had my brother and I know my parents were not married. My mother used to visit us during school holidays, but my father would seldom visit because he was into gangsterism. When my mother visited it was fun because we didn’t get much time to spend with her so it was the only time we could bond. I missed her when she went away.”
Thina recalls being well taken care of by her grandmother.
“We lived in a two-roomed house in Gugulethu. I used to sleep with my grandmother and my siblings slept in the other room. My grandmother worked as a supervisor at a hotel in Cape Town. I had a close relationship with her. My siblings and I were close because we grew up together and were always together. We always had something to eat. My grandmother was a hard worker and she always provided for us.”
Thina can’t recall her precise age but remembers attending creche when she witnessed her mother being hurt after she moved in to take care of Thina and her siblings.
“One day my brother and I were coming home from creche and when we arrived at home my mother waiting for us. She greeted us and then there was a knock on the door. We were all in the dining room. My mother answered the door and the person pushed the door open and then my mother ran to the back of the house. We also ran with her. The guy was wearing a balaclava and he followed us to the back. He was pointing the gun at my mother. We were all screaming and I was crying. I think I ended up freezing because I was young. My brother was trying to help my mother and begging the guy not to shoot my mother. The guy was not saying anything. I can’t remember the timing exactly but my father also came to the back of the house and didn’t say anything either. We shouted at him but he just ignored us and went to the toilet which was also in the back yard and he stayed there.”
“The guy shot my mother in her legs. I was so confused by what was happening. I just remember crying. I think I was crying for help. He never pointed the gun at us but there was a lot of blood. We were right next to her when all this happened. Then my father came out of the toilet. The gunman was pointing the gun at my mother’s head. My father told the guy not to kill our mother. He said; ‘I didn’t tell you to kill her, I just said to shoot her in the legs.’ Then they both ran away. They left us there with my mother, who had passed out after the shooting.”
I don’t really know what happened after that but soon the neighbours came and they called my grandmother from work. I don’t remember the details but I know the police were there and they found the bullets. My mother was taken to the hospital.”
Thina recalls visiting her mother in the hospital with her brother and grandmother.
“I remember my mother in the hospital, we used to visit her. She couldn’t walk. She was in a wheelchair. The doctors told us that my mother won’t be able to walk again. I think she was in hospital for a few months. Things changed for us because we were still very traumatised. I used to have sleepless nights. I used to cry and ask for my mother every night. My grandmother used to comfort me or just give me something to play with. We never talked about it. We did have questions as we got older and began to ask my mother about that day. She told us that our father wanted to kill her because he was jealous of her but we didn’t know why. At first, we were afraid of my father and we didn’t want to see him again. I think they took him to jail because the police found out that the guy was sent by him.”
After Thina’s mother was discharged from the hospital, she moved back into the house.
“When she was discharged from hospital she came to live with us and was still in a wheelchair. She couldn’t do things for herself. She was always in bed and she was in pain. We used to help her wash and dress. She began to move her legs when she started physiotherapy.”
“She struggled. It took her months to walk but she was determined to walk. Most of the time she was helping herself to move her legs. She improved and the doctors were shocked when she started walking slowly again.”
Once her mother could walk and was fully recovered she moved out again to live with their father who had been discharged from jail.
“I was beginning primary school when my mother left us again, returning to stay with my father. I couldn’t fully understand her choices but I didn’t feel my mothers’ absence a lot because I took my grandmother as my mother.”
“My mother went back to stay with my father for I think almost a year, then came back to us pregnant with my little sister. My grandmother was upset with her but my mother was crazy about my father. She was in love with my father, she always chose him first.”
“Their relationship was a cause of tension between my grandmother and mother. My grandmother scolded her and told her to leave my father because he was not the right person for her but my mother didn’t listen. When my sister was born she also left my sister with my grandmother. I think my sister was about five or six months old when our mother left to live with my father again. She did come and visit us and sometimes she came to fetch us to spend time with her and my father. My grandmother didn't like that and was always against it. She didn’t want us to stay with my father, she refused for us to go there but my mother would just take us. My father tried to impress us by buying us toys. I saw that my mother was happy at that moment so I was okay with it. Although I knew what he had done, I just brushed it off. At that time, I was helpless and didn't really have a choice.”
School was the one place where Thina shone the brightest and excelled academically.
“I enjoyed being at school, I was doing well academically. I didn’t have lots of friends and even now I don’t have many friends. It's because I like my own space and I only like to be around my siblings since I consider them my friends.”
When my little sister turned seven, my mother took her to live with her and my father.
“I used to visit them. They had moved to NY4 and were not far from where we were staying. I used to walk to visit them. One night, while I was visiting them my sister cried for me to sleep over. My mother begged me to, even though I didn’t want to. I slept there for a day. I must have been 14 at the time. Because my sister loved me, I asked my grandmother if I could stay with them. I was enjoying spending time with both my parents because I didn’t grow up with that bond. My grandmother didn’t want that but she ended up giving me permission to go.”
“I moved in with them and everything was okay. It was just us. We were renting in the back of someone's yard. We lived in a small shack*.”
“My mother was not working and my father used to steal and that’s how we survived. It was different living in a shack, I struggled a lot. We were living in a small space. My sister and I were sleeping on the floor on a mattress. Sometimes we struggled for food because we only depended on my father and sometimes we didn’t have food to eat. We would miss meals. I just accepted the situation as it was.”
“As time went by my mother and father began fighting. My father changed and became violent with my mother in front of us. He used to beat my mom, almost every day they would have a fight. Sometimes me and my little sister would run next door and sleep there because we were afraid of my father. Sometimes he would chase us out.”
“He did hit me once because I was sitting on his chair that he didn’t want anyone else to sit on. That day I sat on his chair doing homework. He told me to go and sit on another chair and I told him I was busy. He got furious. He grabbed me out of the chair and pushed me. I fell on the zinc of the shack. My mother was outside at the time because she was on a phone call. I ran out because my father was still furious. I ran and told my mother. I wanted to tell my grandmother but my mother said I must not do that because it would stress my grandmother who was already suffering from diabetes. She said that she will speak to my father. We were standing outside at the time. My father came out of the house carrying a hammer and he passed us and then came back again and saw me standing there with my mother, he began kicking me and my mother was just standing there not doing anything. The neighbours were shouting at him to stop. I was hiding my face as he was kicking me. He stopped when the neighbours started shouting at him.”
Thina recalls that after that fight her father stormed off and returned the following day and life continue as normal.
“When I came back from school, my father and mother were watching TV as if nothing had happened. My mother just went back to my father as usual and she told me I must forgive him because he is my father. Life went on and he still beat her in front of us. Me and my sister would just leave the house when he did that. I think he must have been on drugs. His behaviour was strange. My mother once told me that my father used drugs. I didn’t return to my grandmother because my mother said I must protect my grandmother and not stress her. I also stayed for the sake of my youngest sister.”
When Thina was 15, she experienced a life-changing event.
“I was coming back from school and my mother and father were in the house. They were both fine. I changed my uniform, it was a sunny day but I stayed inside doing my homework. Later on that day, my father and my mother started to fight. They were arguing about someone my mother was talking to on the phone. I think my father was jealous of that. My mother called me to go and buy airtime for her. When I came back I gave her the airtime. My father took it from my mother and tore it up. They were busy shouting at each other and I just ignored them because I was used to the fights and carried on with my homework. My mother left the house to calm down and my father left with his car.”
It wasn’t long afterwards that Thina’s father returned.
“He came back. I heard my father’s car when he came back. He came inside the house and he was carrying a petrol tank. I saw him and I could hear my mother outside talking to a neighbour. My father was pouring petrol all over the house. He came to the bed where I was and poured the petrol. He never said anything. When I realised he was pouring petrol I grabbed my uniform and books and tried to run out of the house but the floors were wet and slippery from the petrol that he had poured around the house. It was difficult for me to run away. I was next to the door when he lit the house. We were both inside when the house started burning. I kept on falling while I was trying to get out. I just ran and I left him inside. I managed to get out and ran away. I was burning. I was screaming. I saw my mother outside and she saw me burning. She was trying to put water on me. A neighbour and my mother took me to the day hospital.”
“Five minutes later my dad came in and was screaming in pain. He saw me there and was trying to explain to the nurses that he did that out of anger. The nurses were shouting at him for what he did. When my father saw me there, he told me that he was shocked that I was also burned. He saw me inside the house but at the hospital he said that he didn’t know that I was inside the house. He told me that; ‘I’d rather die than to see you like this’. I was confused by what he was saying because I am sure he saw me inside the house. I did not believe him. I was angry at him. I didn’t say anything to him. My mother was crying.”
Thina was forced to face what had happened.
“What I remember is that I ran to look at myself in the mirror. When I saw that I was badly burnt in my face and that my hair had fallen out I started screaming. I think that’s when I passed out. All I could hear was the voices of my family members. I couldn’t see them but I could hear their voices. I was scared. I thought that I was going to die. I think I was in and out of consciousness, they told me that I had third-degree burns. We waited for the ambulance and the ambulance took me to Mitchells Plain hospital and they also took my father to the same hospital. We were told that the hospital doesn’t take burn patients so they sent me to Red Cross Children’s Hospital.”
Thina doesn’t recall the details after she arrived at Red Cross.
“My mother told me I was on life support. They thought that I was not going to make it. They told my mother that I was badly burned and I had inhaled a lot of smoke. They told my mother to pray. They took my father to Mowbray hospital. He stayed there for three weeks I think, and then he died. My mother told me that I was on life support for quite a long time but I don’t know how long exactly. After being on life support I went to the burns ward. I was in isolation for two months.”
“It was difficult for me because I couldn’t do anything for myself like walking or feeding myself. I was in pain and I struggled to sleep. The doctors suggested that I take sleeping tablets because I used to wake up at night and cry. I had nightmares of what had happened. I was still scared of my father coming again to kill us. At that time, I was not aware that he had died.”
“After I had recovered and was out of isolation and in the ward with other children, the social worker told me he had passed away. I felt free because I was afraid of him coming back. My mother stayed with me all the time, she slept there next to me. My grandmother and siblings came to visit me. They were emotional because they saw me with bandages and they were not used to seeing me like that.”
Recovery for Thina was a long process.
“I began to recover. I had more than twenty skin grafts and surgeries. What kept me going was the support that I had from my family. That kept me strong, as well as the support from the hospital and the therapies that were provided. At the hospital, I met a woman who did art psychotherapy. Most of the time I used to draw and paint. It helped me to forget the bad memories and trauma. I was in the ward for five months. I couldn’t speak and had to learn to walk and speak again. I went for speech therapy and physiotherapy. It was difficult for me because I felt like I was useless and a part of me was shattered at that time.”
“I felt hopeless, I was heartbroken. I was not used to my physical appearance. After I was discharged from hospital, we lived at my grandmother's house. For the rest of the year, I stayed at home. During this time I didn’t go out and I started writing. At that time I was lonely so I used to write about my struggles. Almost every day, I had something to write. When I was doing that, I could feel there was healing happening.”
Thina just intuitively knew that her writing would end up in a book. She found a publisher on social media, who published her writing into a book. Twenty copies were published.
“The following year I returned to school where I repeated the grade. Going back to school was difficult because everyone was staring at me. I was like a different person to them because I had scars. Back then, I felt like I was ashamed. Some were laughing at me. Some felt sorry for me. I was always alone, my few old friends had moved on to another grade and had friends there.”
“Life became even more challenging. I couldn’t go to public places because people made me feel like I was different to them and so I chose to isolate myself. I only went out of the house to go to school. I used to hide most of the time. My family was always there for me to support me. I enjoyed being at school in terms of academics, I knew that I had a skill because I loved my books so much. I continued going to school and I am now in the final year of high school. I am still going to the hospital for check-ups and I am doing laser treatments to help my scars to heal.”
“I also needed to work on myself. I first made peace that I am a burn survivor and little by little forced myself to get used to the change. I began affirming myself on a daily basis. I used to look in the mirror and tell myself that; ‘I am beautiful’.”
“After a year, I told myself that I don’t mind what people have to say about my scars. I chose to ignore people staring at me and their silly remarks. I just went out there and embraced my scars. I gained self-confidence.”
“I was always hiding my scars and wearing long sleeves but I told myself I'm tired of hiding and now is the time to show them and I began wearing short clothing. I went out and people were still staring at me and I just told myself that is just a passing phase. I became stronger every day.”
As Thina became stronger, life threw her another curve ball.
I was 17 when my grandmother became ill. I was taking care of her. My mother started working but was living somewhere else. My grandmother died at home. We were together that night. She told me the day before she died that I must stay the way that I am and that I must not change. She told me that I must take care of my mother and siblings. She also told us that she loves us that she wants the best for us.”
Thina’s grandmother's passing affected her and she struggled with the loss.
“It affected me at school because my marks dropped and I didn’t pay much attention to my books. It was difficult for me to deal with the fact that my beloved grandmother was no more. I started seeing a counsellor at school and then I managed to turn the situation around and began to pay attention to my books again.”
After her grandmother's passing, Thina and her siblings moved to live with their mother.
“We are staying with my mother now. She is the one looking after us, we live in a rented room and struggle financially. But I am not losing hope, I am doing well at school and I’m applying for a bursary to go to university. I want to study occupational therapy because of my recovery experience in the hospital.”
Thina believes that she has learned some invaluable life lessons in her young journey.
“Never give up even if the sky is grey, because there is always light in the end. It doesn’t mean that when the process hurts that the results won’t be beautiful. I have not lost faith that my life book has a happy ending. I know that as long as I keep learning and keep going I am still writing my story.”
Thina is a Leader's Quest participant
*shack - a shack (or, less often, shanty) is a type of small, often primitive shelter or dwelling. Like huts, shacks are constructed by hand using available materials.