The beauty in my scars
What you need to know:
Susan Wahu Ndonga, 28, survived a road accident in Nairobi in 2015 which left her skin scarred. Today she runs a road safety advocacy organisation—Road Accident Survivors Campaign Initiative (RASCI)— apart from being a beauty model
“It all happened four days before Christmas on December 20 2015. I was 20 and on a Sunday afternoon, my mum had sent me to buy chicken at Mtindwa market, off Outering Road.
At the time, I had just completed a Diploma in Purchasing and Supplies Management at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and I was on an internship.
When I got on the bus, I felt an overwhelming, quirky and strange feeling. The bus was loaded with too many passengers. It wasn’t my first time being in a matatu but for some reason, I’d never felt the way I felt on that day. My anxiety was made worse by the stench of petrol that a passenger was carrying in a jerrican.
It did not take long before death flashed right before my eyes. I couldn’t have seen it coming with the noise from people chatting and the booming music. I just heard a loud blast ‘BOOM!’ followed by screams. The fire started right at the door. People couldn’t walk out. Many started rushing towards the back. The bus rolled on for some metres before it stopped.
I remember seeing one passenger go through the door and he caught fire. At the back, they tried to break the exit door almost in vain. It got hot and breathing started to become a struggle. The fire spread. We were literally burning alive.
I pushed myself through a broken window, jumped and landed on my left side. By that time, the bus had stopped near a car wash and Good Samaritans had come out to help. I had a weave and it was on fire. I sustained severe third-degree burns on my right arm and face from the fire and cuts from the impact of the accident. Sadly, not everyone was as lucky as I was. Several people died while others sustained serious injuries.
I gave out my mom's number to the helpers. When medical emergency responders arrived, I was rushed to Mama Lucy Hospital and was later transferred to the Aga Khan University Hospital. I stayed at the hospital for a month. I healed and recovered very well. But my self-confidence tanked. My spirit would get crashed whenever I would look at myself in the mirror or see my reflection. I was young and aspiring to become a model. The burns made me feel ugly and unworthy. This was compounded by the loneliness of spending Christmas and New Year season at the hospital. It was depressing. My only consolation was that I had survived.
When I left the hospital in January 2016, the only thing on my mind was that my dream to become a model had been shattered. I had always wanted to pursue modeling, specifically Beauty Pageantry. I had carried this dream since my childhood and in that one month, I felt that I could never stand on a runaway again. I felt as if I wasn’t beautiful enough. My skin looked charred. “What would my peers think of me?” I thought as I slipped into depression. To date, I struggle with the emotional trauma.
After several months of recovery and counseling, I gradually began to realise that I was unduly punishing myself.
I had started my studies at the certificate level. I now had a Diploma and had been planning to upgrade to a degree. Nothing would amount to the effort I had put in if I succumbed to the emotional train I had sustained from the accident.
In 2018, I decided to return to school for my degree studies. I also registered an organisation to advocate for road safety in the same year. I figured that if the accident had such a significant impact on my life, it was possible that many other survivors probably had gone through the same or even worse. My organisation is known as the Road Accident Survivors Campaign Initiative (RASCI).
I began to find myself again. I decided to get back into modeling, and this time, I was aiming high. I put myself out there, contacted a few modeling agencies, and waited to see what would turn up. My scars cover most of my left hand. I was fully aware that I did not look like the traditional model. The agencies were only interested in what they termed as the 'picture perfect' look.
Despite the setbacks, I truly believed there was a spot that would be perfect for me.
At one point, I was called for a pageantry modeling interview and there were many gorgeous girls. I believed that I stood a chance. The best walkers were shortlisted for the final and I made it to the finals. For the final part of the interview, we were asked to wear short-sleeved tank tops.
When I walked in with the tank top, my scars were in full view. Some people in the recruiting panel were visibly shocked, others simply stared at my hand, and the few that did not react seemed to be writing things down. When the results were announced, I was told I had not made the cut because of my scars. I felt dejected, gathered my belongings, and went straight home. I knew I had performed better than many of those who were chosen, but I had been rejected because of my scars.
I was confronted with the choice to either give up or chin up. I chose to forge ahead. I took the whole experience as the first step to putting my face and my abilities out there. In any case, this was the real reason my organisation existed in the first place. If I was preaching that there is life after a bad accident, I needed to walk the talk. I got myself up and went back into the world, wholly unashamed and thoroughly proud of the scars that made me get rejected.
Today, I have completed my university studies and I’m the holder of a Bachelor’s degree in Procurement and Contract Management. I continue to pursue my modeling and beauty pageantry career and have focused on the Miss Universe crown. I don't hide my scars anymore to make anyone comfortable. I wear them with pride because they tell a story of conquest. These are my beautiful scars, and I will never let anyone use them against me.”