The following story was narrated to TWSC Contributor Celine Njoki.
My name is Gertrude Katula. When I was young, I used to lie next to the fireplace oblivious of the danger I was exposing myself to. However, when I was three years old, the reality of it dawned on me in the cruellest way.
One evening in 1997, as was my norm, I made herself comfortable next to the fireplace. Unlike other nights, my dress caught fire. Shocked by the fire and fearing punishment, I rushed and hid in a suitcase of clothes, which didn’t help matters. By the time the flames died out, the damage had already been done.
It was my aunt who discovered me in their small hut in Ikalaasa village, Machakos County. My aunt, shaken to the core, rushed me to a nearby health center dispensary where I received first aid before being transferred to Machakos General Hospital where I was admitted for a year. I was then transferred to Nazareth Hospital where I recuperated fully. While the wounds healed, they left my badly scarred, a constant reminder of what happened that fateful night.
I went through three surgeries, which included grafting on my stomach, which was greatly disfigured. My belly button was moved to one side and my thighs and one of my breasts also bore the brunt of the burn.
Adolescence often brings about self-awareness and body changes, but for me, I had the added burden of getting teased because of my disfigurement. The taunting was endless as children said all sorts of unkind things: See that girl who has one breast on her chest and the other on her stomach? Is there anyone who can love and marry such a person?
Needless to say, my self-esteem took a beating and by the time I was joining high school, I didn’t want anyone to see my body. I would wake up at 2 a.m. to shower so as not to be seen by my fellow students. I would also avoid dressing in the presence of other students.
While the burns affected my body, my brain was in tip top condition and I excelled in my academics. So much so that I proceeded to Kenyatta University where I am currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality and tourism. I am left with one semester before completing my studies.
While in university, my side hustle was repairing shoes to supplement my upkeep. And it was while I was diligently carrying out my duties that I met the love of my life and a man who would change my life for the better – John Nzioka, a Ph.D student at the same institution. For unknown reasons, his shoe took longer to repair than usual and that meant we would talk more often. We got to know each other more in the process. I opened up to him about the scars on my body but this did not seem to put him off.
The burn scars did not scare him off. According to him, I had good qualities that far outweighed the scars and any man with a brain would marry me. When he shared his feelings with me, I thought he wasn’t serious. This went a long way in helping me overcome my esteem issues as well as accept myself and by the time I was 21, I was more confident about my body. We started courting and in April 2017, we moved in together.
I was convinced he loved me. We also talked about the possibility of me being unable to carry a pregnancy to term and he assured me that we would get a surrogate mother.
To add icing to the cake, Nzioka’s family also accepted me and my gynecologist confirmed that despite the disfigurement, I could bear children. The doctor’s assertion was soon confirmed as I fell pregnant. My husband’s next concern was that I wouldn’t be able to carry the pregnancy to term.
We got different opinions from different doctors with some suggesting that I abort the baby as it was too risky. We consulted a plastic surgeon who, after examining me, believed I could pull through with the pregnancy.
As the pregnancy grew, the bump developed on one side as the grafted skin could not stretch further. The one-sided bump made it difficult to stand or do ordinary daily activities such as cooking. Towards the third trimester, the skin around my tummy got tight and I had to keep it moisturized using Bio-Oil to keep the skin supple. Some tummy areas started cracking as the baby grew.
My delivery took seven hours with some doctors suggesting that I undergo a caesarean section but the decision was overruled as a CS scar would have added to my problems. The nurses were kind to me and this eased the labour process.
My baby Stanislaus was born on Feb 15, 2019, at 2:05 p.m. With labour and delivery behind us, I had to breastfeed with one nipple as I couldn’t breastfeed with the disfigured nipple. This proved challenging. What’s more, the disfigured breast was still producing milk and being unable to breastfeed with it, milk accumulated in the breast causing me colossal pain. My mother-in-law was a saving grace as she would do a warm massage/compress on the breast three times a day until it stopped producing milk.
In a bid to reach out to victims of disfigurement, in September 2016, I started a cause called Beyond Burns and Disfigurement which supports and encourages patients suffering from disfigurements.
Sharing my story with burn and accident victims encourages them not to give up but to soldier on. Eventually, I would like to witness people donate their skin to be used for skin grafting for victims with severe disfigurements.