True Story – Loide Ndemueda
Loide Ndemueda, 23, on discovering her purpose after surviving a brutal fire attack in 2010. Now a Desmond Tutu Youth Fellow and human rights campaigner, she’s using her setback to bring positive change
“It was a cold day on 13 July 2010. I remember that day so well because it changed my life forever. I was 12 years old at the time and it was my first year of high school. My friend, little sister and I were walking home from school.
I’m from Vingerkraal, a small community outside Bela Bela. We stayed right next to a big game lodge owned by a wealthy white man. I had heard stories about how he was forcing our community to move out of the area so that he could extend this lodge.
People refused to move to a neighbouring area called Masakhane because they didn’t have houses there. Like other residents, I didn’t want to move because Vingerkraal
has always been a place I call home. While walking home that day, we saw the wealthy man and his friend on our side of the fence starting a fire. We thought nothing of it and continued walking because we are used to having dry grass being burnt in the area during winter. When my sister looked back, she saw the man following us and she started getting scared.
We decided to run and saw the white man carrying something - we thought it was a fire extinguisher. He caught up with us and sprayed us with something from the container that he was carrying. Our skin started to burn, but we had nowhere to run because the fire was getting bigger and stronger because of the wind.
Before we knew it, we were caught in the flames. We were burning and everything hurt! The man then cut through the fence and went back into his lodge. When we tried to go through the other side of the fence, he shouted at us. Going through the fence and into his lodge was our only hope. We were screaming from excruciating pain, but no one came to help us. We tried to climb through the fence again even if it was hot. My friend and I made it, but my sister got left behind. We could hear her cries for help as we ran to the game lodge to seek assistance, but the workers wouldn’t help us because their boss was there. He told them to protect his lodge because the fire was crossing to their side.
I knew I had to do something to help my sister. We continued running and came across other workers who weren’t being supervised and they helped us. They made us lie on the back of a van, got us water and called an ambulance. That was the last day I saw my sister.
We were taken to Bela Bela Hospital and when we got there, my friend and I found out that there were more children who got burnt. I don’t know how because when the fire started and got out of control, it was just the three of us. Apparently, the other children heard our cries and tried to help, but they got caught up in the fire too. In total, 17 children got burned in that fire.
We were later told that the man actually sprayed us with a poisonous gas and till this day, I don’t know why he did that to us. I feel like I survived to tell the story for those who passed away because 10 children died. This included my sister who succumbed to her injuries and complications after surgery. She never made it home. My parents lost their daughter and so many other families lost their children. A case was opened and police said they were investigating but nothing came of it. Till today, we have no closure or justice over what happened to us.
My journey to recovery was hard. I had numerous surgeries and skin grafts to help with the scarring. The staff at Mankweng Hospital where I was later treated were really nice to me, but they couldn’t offer all the specialist services I needed. For instance, they couldn’t offer physiotherapy. I got discharged at the end of November to spend Christmas with my family. I was in a wheelchair, but continued to go for checkups as a day patient. In 2011, occupational therapists, who travel the world helping people, heard about my story and started helping me with exercises and therapy. They also found me a doctor to do more of my surgeries in Joburg, so I had to move there. They also organised for me to be part of an organisation that deals with burn victims and survivors called Children of Fire. I was able to get my hands reconstructed and it is still an ongoing painful process. I also got a hip replacement because I was limping even though I was out of the wheelchair. My life of activism started with my move to Joburg. I was involved in community service and spoke on
fire safety at Joe Slovo Informal Settlement and Kya Sands.
I was out of school for two years, but because I was volunteering at Johannesburg School for the Blind as well, I ended up taking classes there. I felt that they were doing the same things I would have been doing at any mainstream school. I was later taken to an educational psychologist to see where my level of understanding was and she saw that I was fit to continue with Grade 9. I started Grade 9 at Greenside High School in 2013 and it was so scary. I shared my story with the entire school and the learners were kind. I played in the school’s first netball team and had a great high school experience.
I was given a chance to visit the London branch of Children of Fire in November 2013. It was a beautiful experience, as they accepted and motivated me. In 2015, I went back to campaign for burn victims to get assistance from UK doctors with their recovery and reconstructive surgeries. The work I’ve done allowed me to be awarded the Desmond Tutu Youth Fellowship in 2017 and I travelled to Indianapolis. I’m currently studying for a Diploma in Public Administration at Rosebank College and hope to become a human rights lawyer one day. I felt that I was reborn after I got burnt. I’m now focused on bringing change in people’s lives and spreading positivity. It was challenging at first because I had to accept myself before I could expect other people to accept me. I don’t let what others say about my looks affect me on the inside. It was a difficult journey but now I’m here to tell the world that scars are like tattoos. I have found beauty in my scars.”