Kenyan model inspires others

We were honoured to host Claudiah Wanjiru, a courageous young woman from Kenya, as part of an International Intersectoral meeting organised by the Centre for Global Burn Injury, Policy and Research (CGBIPR) and Interburns in June 2019. Claudiah received a standing ovation for her impassioned speech about her experience as a young girl and the importance of realising the long term effects that a burn can have on a person’s life. We are grateful to her for sharing her story with us, which is reproduced here with her permission. Photo credit: Fran Monks.

My name is Claudiah Wanjiru. I am a 22-year-old model and I come from Nairobi, Kenya. I live with my parents and sister and I am a burn survivor. I was born in 1997 in Nyeri, a very cold county in the highlands of Kenya.  I was living with my grandparents at the time while mom was working. My grandparents are humble and spiritual Christians so from a young age I grew up with love and kindness as my values. They constantly reminded me that I am loved by God and that He would never leave me. From a young age I felt confident and unstoppable. This gave me so much confidence and self-love.

I loved dressing up in my mom’s outfits and her lipstick then spending time checking myself out in the mirror or strutting across the house. I loved posing for photos. Weekends were my favorite because that is when all the neighborhood children would come out and play. Boys played football while us girls loved having fashion shows. We would pick outfits from home, get as much make up as we could then we would go compete with each other; trying to see who had the best fashion.

I saw my first fashion show on TV when I was around eight years old. I was star struck, I loved how the models walked, how they posed, how they turned, their confidence. I knew there and then that I was going to become a model and nothing would stop me. I loved it, I could change outfits and be anything in an instant. All I had to do now was work hard and wait till I was old enough to enroll in an agency.

Things changed though when I was involved in a fire. It was on 11TH August 2009, my class was on a school trip in Kisumu. We had just come from swimming and were back at our hotel for dinner. It was around eight p.m. and as we were queueing the chef started to warm the food. I was in deep conversation with my friend I did not notice the fire behind me. One second we were talking and the next she froze in mid-sentence. I turned to see what made her stop. I don’t remember turning but I remember the feeling of hot liquid flowing down my face. I could see the flames on my face. I wanted to close my eyes so badly but I had to see where I was going. I just kept running around thinking “Am I about to die? will I go blind?”. My teacher caught me in time and he rushed me to hospital.

I spent the night there knowing I will get better. The next day when I woke up my face was so swollen I couldn’t open my eyes. That was when I realized that my life would never be the same again. I flew to Nairobi that day for specialized care in the main hospital. My parents welcomed me so well but I could see the pain in their eyes. I was so scared. I told myself I was ugly now. I couldn’t become a model anymore. I hated myself. I felt that since I had been strong my whole life I had to act strong even then. I did not know it then.

I transferred to a new school in the next term so I could start over. School was amazing. My teachers made sure I was not bullied. They were supportive and kind and so were my classmates. Some would be a little mean but it was just childish fun.

When I went to high school though, everything seemed to change. For the first time, I was in boarding school. On my first day there the principal ordered me to remove my headscarf as I was not a Muslim. For the first time in my life I had to show people my scars. I was so scared and insecure that I just wanted to hide. I joined Christian union where I really felt at home and unjudged. But as I grew older became more conscious about myself. What people said about me started getting to me.

I started to hate myself, boys didn’t want to talk to me and girls did not want to be associated with me. I felt worthless and alone in spite of how strong I looked and acted I would cut myself in bed and cry myself to sleep because. I kept praying but nothing was changing. I told myself I was already ugly what would one more mark on my thighs do? I stopped eating, I stopped studying and I quit Christian Union. I had honestly reached the end. I did not have a will to live. I had cut myself so much yet the pain was not going away. It was a cry for help but as soon as society noticed I was considered an attention seeker in school. I got so fed up so I decided I would try and end my life. I had no clue these were signs of depression. My nanny found me before it was too late and I was rushed to hospital.

When I came to all I could think about was the fact that I had been given a second chance. I had not finished serving my purpose. I just wanted to follow my heart and make sure nobody ever felt like I did. I told myself I would do my best to try and be there for people the same way I had hoped to have someone here for me. I went for counselling after the incident and it helped me a lot. I began to love myself again slowly. I began to accept that my scars were a part of me so I had to get used to living with them. If Claudiah did not love herself who would?

I slowly started to cultivate self-love within me. From learning to separate what people defined me as from the truth. I came to realize that when a person bullies you or is unkind to you, it is more of a reflection of who they are than it is about you. People forget what they say yet the person it is said to never forgets. I had to teach myself to forget. To get what bullies say out of my mind as fast as possible and move on for my own sake. As I got used to this, my earlier joy and enthusiasm for life started to come back to me.

I joined University. Here I could finally pursue my modelling dreams. I knew it was going to be hard because I am not a “normal” looking model. I should have known how many No’s I was going to get before getting even one yes. From being outright ignored to not being given a chance to audition, it did not break me if anything I got stronger. I became more and more resilient to pursue my modelling.

I did not care about my scars if anything I loved them even more. Accepting myself f and considering myself beautiful not in spite of my scars but because of them is still the most humbling feeling I get as I grow. But sometimes even a comment from a stranger will get to me especially in these days of social media.

I fight for the dreams of those little boys and girls growing up with burns which are beyond their control, for children who have been bullied or outcast because of their appearance. I fight for them the best way I can and hope that one person will see and feel inspired to be kinder to burn survivors, or as a survivor to love and accept themselves as they are.

My one wish.

If I had one wish, it would be to focus on the burn survivor. To end stigmatization and promote acceptance from society and to make burn survivors feel cared for especially psychologically, a way to let us know we are not alone. It would be beautiful for survivors to feel support and not stigmatization after the accident.

It would be great if there was free and easy access to counsellors who help survivors get back on their feet and prevent depression or worse. Awareness for people around survivors on identifying symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, depression and other psychological changes a survivor may be going through.