Who said only ‘yellow, yellows’ are beautiful?
“Sister, mafuta!” the young women call out.
They are standing outside the rows and rows of stalls stacked with products in brightly-coloured containers.
All of these products promise to give you a lighter complexion within days. A quick look reveals that almost all the faces plastered on the packaging are those of attractive white women with long-flowing blond hair.
The young women aggressively marketing these skin-lightening products shrewdly assess the faces of the women walking by, and give a diagnosis – “Mafuta ya rashes auntie…” “Mafuta ya kumaliza spots hapa…” If you believed them, they hold the solution for every skin problem under the sun.
It is 10.30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and several women customers are already making their purchases.
In one of them, a woman who seems to be in her mid-thirties stands by as a shop attendant prepares a concoction from three different jars.
She scoops the strong-smelling contents into a transparent polythene bag, gently rolls the cream between her palms, and when satisfied, cuts one corner of the bag using a pair of scissors, and squeezes out the contents into one of the containers.
The woman hands over Sh300, and walks away – her facial complexion is significantly lighter than that of her hands and sandaled feet.
Irene Njoroge-Kristian, a cosmetologist with 15 years’ experience, has witnessed, first-hand, just how brutal these backstreet skin-lightening creams are on the skin.
“As a skin care consultant, I have come across several cases of skin bleaching gone wrong – the worst was three years ago in Kirinyaga County. This 21-year-old woman had used a concoction of battery acid, hair relaxer, which contains sodium hydroxide, and steroid cream to bleach her face,” she says.
By the time this young woman sought help, her badly damaged skin was peeling and she had turned a bright red.
She adds: “Two weeks later, her skin turned black, as though she had been seared by a flame. She has since somewhat recovered, although it took almost one-and-a-half years to reverse most of the damage.”
Another case that stands out is that of a woman from Nanyuki who had swallowed skin-lightening pills.
“She became as light as a European, but her knuckles, ears, elbows and knees remained dark. She looked quite scary.”
Drawing from the numerous cases she has seen, while the most prevalent use of skin bleaching products is among those between 18 and 30 years, the skin specialist says that girls as young as 15 are also using them – so are a group of women between 40 and 50 years.
The main reason such women desire to change their skin colour, a reason that has often been repeated, is that they believe Kenyan men are more attracted to women with a light skin tone, popularly known as “yellow-yellow”.
Other reasons, says Ms Njoroge, are to be accepted in their social circles, and to improve their chances of getting a job, or even a promotion.
Ms Njoroge, who runs the programme – The Safe Skin Care Initiative, (under this programme, she holds skin clinics in various parts of the country), says that besides Nairobi, skin bleaching is most rampant in the Mt Kenya region, with Meru taking the cake, followed by Machakos, Mombasa and Kisumu. Women from the Rift Valley, she says, are not too keen on bleaching.
“I believe women in the Mt Kenya region are very beauty conscious, but ignorant about the dangers of some of the products they use.”
These harmful products, which are being sold in our towns in plain view, often contain three harmful ingredients – hydroquinone, mercury and steroids, substances that cause serious health complications if not used under medical supervision.
Hydroquinone lightens the skin by suppressing and inhibiting the production of melanin. Some manufacturers say that it is safe when used in concentrations of two per cent, but many of the products being illegally sold in our streets contain extremely high concentrations, some even up to 15 per cent.
The toxic metal, mercury, is a highly effective bleaching agent, which works in as little as four days. It is rapidly absorbed by the skin, and into blood stream. Over use places a strain on the kidneys and it has been cited as a cause of kidney failure. One of the symptoms of mercury use includes darkening of the lips and palms.
The third is steroids.
Explains Ms Njoroge: “In most cases, the products that contain this hormone are marketed as drugs. Many women use them because they rapidly lighten and soften the skin.”
With time, it becomes difficult to do without them, and should you attempt to stop using them, the skin will darken, develop rashes, and begin to itch. Being a medication that should only be dispensed by a doctor, overdosing thins and weakens the skin, and in some cases, could damage it beyond repair.
They could also cause conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome, where the shape of the face alters.
While these cheap, deadly creams (they cost between Sh100 and Sh500) are mainly popular with college-going women and women in low income groups, there is a skin lightener for the elite, those who can afford several thousands to get the lighter skin tone they have always desired – it is known as glutathione, and is touted as “safe”.
Unlike the creams you will find in River Road stalls, this one is said to give the entire body, including stubborn knuckles and feet, an even skin tone.
It comes in the form of a lotion, pill, injection, even laser, if what one is looking for is fast results. Depending on the form you want it in, it will cost you between Sh8,000 and Sh27,000, in at least one clinic we visited.
However, it is not a one-off treatment. Internet sources point out that the duration your lighter skin stays put after treatment will be determined by how well you take care of yourself: One site, lococowellnessclinic.ca, lists defeating factors as smoking, alcohol, poor diet, environmental toxins, poor sleep and stress.
Glutathione definitely sounds like a much better deal than the dubious skin-lightening creams sold in the back streets of Nairobi and other towns, however, Ms Njoroge is not convinced.
“There is no such thing as “safe bleaching”, this is because any skin lightening interferes with the body’s natural functioning. The reason our bodies produce melanin is to protect the skin, suppressing this production is counterproductive,” she points out.
If you want to improve skin tone, she says, the safest approach is to get rid of dead skin using products such as exfoliating masks, which are applied when doing facials.
“We shouldn’t tire of educating the public, especially our young people, about the dangers of using these dangerous products, but more important, let us teach them to be proud of their skin colour, to be accepting of themselves,” she adds.
While this sounds like solid advice, it will be tough getting through to a generation that has been made to believe that a light-skinned woman is more attractive, and the one that the good-looking rich man falls for, thanks to mass media.
As long as our young people grow up with such a belief, it will be easy to sell them a colourful container full of toxins, masquerading as the ‘yellow-yellow’ skin they yearn for.
BLACKIE OF THE CLASS
Milka Okiria noticed her dark skin colour for the first time when she joined nursery school – she was only three years old.
“I was born and brought up in Kisumu, where a dark skin like mine is common, however, my first school was dominated by children of Asian descent – in fact, I was the only black child in my school,” she says.
On her first day at the institution, all the children in her class jostled to touch her skin and hair, staring at her in wonder. When her father dropped her off in school every morning thereafter, all the pupils would stop what they were doing to stare at her.
“I had no friends, since the other children would either pick on me, push me away when I tried to play with them, or avoid me,” she says, adding that even at that young age, she noticed that her teacher, also of Asian descent, did not give her as much attention as the other children.
Her father eventually transferred her to another school, but already, her self-esteem had begun to chip away.
It so happened that in the next school she went to, this time in Nairobi, even though it was an all-black school, she was darker than the other pupils in her class.
“I was nicknamed blackie, a name that only reinforced the belief that had been sown in me, that there was something wrong with the colour of my skin.”
When referring to her, some of the teachers would describe her as “Huyo mtoto mwesi” (that black girl), a reference that cemented the belief that there was something wrong with her.
To differentiate her with a classmate that was also called Milka, they would call her Milka blackie, while they would call the other girl, who was light-skinned, Milka brownie.
“By the time I was in Class Four, I had no confidence – I could not even get myself to talk to fellow pupils, and became a loner, a bitter loner.”
She also became defiant and aggressive, and would fight anyone she felt was being unfair to her. It is only later that she would understand that her defiance and aggression were a defense mechanism to deal with the turmoil she was going through – and it worked, because the other children refrained from making fun of her.
“I was the most notorious noise marker in class, and to ‘punish’ me, one of my teachers would often make me read story books out loud to the others in class.”
Unknown to her, this would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
“One day, she pointed out that my pronunciation was impressive, and that because of this, coupled with my “loudness”, I was the best candidate to present a poem in an upcoming schools’ competition.”
Her presentation was so good, she went on to qualify for the national competitions, and was even awarded a gift voucher by the Bata Shoe Company for her sterling performance.
“Winning feels good, and I think that win boosted my self-esteem a little bit,” she says.
Milka, now 33 and a mother of two girls, says that she fully accepted her skin colour in 2008, when she started teaching.
“I looked at those small faces looking at me in earnest, and I knew that I would do everything in my power to ensure that they did not feel as unwanted as I did when I was their age.”
Milka is an Early Childhood Education teacher.
LESSON IN CONFIDENCE
“I have 25 children in my class, and every morning, I hug each one of them and tell them that they are either beautiful or handsome,” she says, adding that the insecurity about one’s skin colour often starts in childhood.
Cat walking is part of the “curriculum” in her class, and at least once a day, she and her charges sashay between the tables – it makes them feel good about themselves, she says.
Today, Milka, who oozes confidence, is far from the insecure girl who once detested her dark skin. Once in a while, she is invited to host functions, the recent ones being her school’s sports day, and a graduation ceremony last year.
“I am proud of being a black African woman, and believe that I am beautiful just the way I am – I often remind my daughters that they are fine, just the way they are. No woman should ever be made to feel that she is unattractive or does not measure up because of her dark skin colour.”