She knows she looks different, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t long to be like other teens her age.
Her lack of hair is especially difficult.
“I want to feel like a normal girl with hair and pretty skin,” she says.
Michelle Motibi has suffered more tragedy and hardship in her 15 years than most people do in a lifetime. Her mother used to be a drug addict, her beloved grandmother died four years ago, and she doesn’t have a relationship with her father.
And then there’s the fire that nearly killed her and left her skin scarred, and her scalp so damaged she can no longer grow hair.
Michelle was five and her brother, Freddie, was three when their mom, Ursula Motibi, left them alone in their home in Kraaifontein, South Africa, near Cape Town to visit a friend.
When it got dark, Freddie lit a candle, and the children forgot to blow it out before they went to sleep.
The siblings woke up to flames devouring their home. Although Freddie escaped unscathed, Michelle was terribly injured.
She suffered burns to 86% of her body as well as inhalation burns, which required her to be put on a ventilator. She battled 11 bouts of potentially deadly infections, but she pulled through and a long and began a painful road to recovery.
“I burnt from my head to my toes. Doctors didn’t think I was going to make it because of the wounds and infections. The fire also damaged my vocal cords,” she says in a raspy voice.
Much of her skin melted off and some of the fingers on her left hand were burnt to stubs. Michelle spent 21 days in intensive care and has since undergone 20 surgeries, including skin grafts from six different donors to increase her mobility.
After being discharged from the hospital, she was sent to St. Joseph’s Home for Chronically Ill Children in Montana, Cape Town, because Ursula was battling addiction at the time and her grandmother couldn’t afford to look after her.
Now, after seven years in the home, she has returned to her family and is enrolled at Westcliff Special Secondary School in Bellville, where she’s due to go into Grade 9.
“School is going okay,” she says. “I know people look at me, they’ll always look and sometimes I feel shy. But there are other times when I tell myself they’ll get used to me because this is who I am. But there are other times when I tell myself they’ll get used to me because this is who I am.”
Michelle doesn’t remember much of the day the fire broke out. All she recalls is that she and Freddie went looking for matches because there was no electricity in their home.
“I didn’t know how to use matches, but my brother knew. While he was busy lighting the candle, I told him I was going to sleep,” she says.” After lighting the candle Freddie fell asleep too. Then I woke up, and the shack was in flames, and I was looking for my mom. I can’t remember much, just that it was very sore.”
A neighbor kicked down the door and went into the burning house to rescue the children.
Freddie was pulled out first, then Michelle. Another neighbor went to fetch Ursula from her friends house, and she arrived to a scene of horror: the house was ablaze and Michelle was in bad shape.
“When I saw her, I just cried,” Ursula says. “Michelle was rushed to the Red Cross War Memorial Childrens Hospital, but things didn’t look good.”
After undergoing skin graft surgery, Michelle developed severe sepsis and was placed in palliative care because doctors didn’t think there was anything more they could do for her.
After many months in hospital, she was taught how to talk and walk again.
Though she still has challenges, she’s learned to live with the aftereffects of the tragedy.
“It still feels sore when I bend down and when I speak too long my throat starts to burn,” she says. “I just take every day as it comes”.
She’s happy to be back with her family, but there have been obstacles.
Michelle, her mom, and her aunt Mischka live with a family friend because they can’t afford a place of their own. Freddie lives with his father’s family.
Ursula, 34, lost her right leg to gangrene in 2019 and hasn’t been able to find a job. Michelle spends most days in her room by herself.
“I don’t feel comfortable around a lot of people, even if I know them,” she says. “I feel better on my own that’s how I cope. I know how different I look, and I feel very insecure about it. Even as I get older it’s not getting better.”
“She’s always wearing a jacket to cover her body, and she always wears a face mask with her cap over her eyes when she goes out,” Ursula says.
Ursula, who has overcome her drug addiction, blames herself for the fire and is working on mending the bond with her daughter. Michelle has forgiven her but admits things are strained between them.
“Honestly, I dont think we have a relationship. But my mom stays my mom,” she says.
Her late grandmother, Mina Motibi, raised her and was the one she always confided in. Now that she’s gone, Michelle finds comfort in reading, drawing, and writing.
“I’m not someone who talks, and I know that has affected me mentally. Maybe I’ll talk one day, but for now I enjoy drawing and writing in my diary,” she says.
Her bald head has especially crushed her confidence.
“One of my biggest wishes is to get hair implants,” she says.
“My teacher told me that it’s a procedure where doctors go under your skin and implant hair follicles, but it’s very expensive, it costs R30 000.”
Michelle wants to finish school and get a job in administration or art, so she can afford to pay for her hair implants one day.
“It’s been very hard, but what happened to me showed me how strong I really am, she says. Other people die, but I survived. God gave me another opportunity and I want to use my second chance to the best of my ability.”
Produced in association with Magazine Features ZA
Edited by Alberto Arellano and Sterling Creighton Beard