Nairobi’s River Road and why Kenyan women feel the pressure to bleach their skin

Nairobi’s River Road is known for many things among them prostitution, illegal hawking, counterfeit goods, genuine but stolen goods and in recent years it has become the home of skin lightening agents. In Kenya, skin lightening is commonly known as bleaching and just the way the process of bleaching makes white garments whiter, the lightening process also makes dark-skinned women lighter through the use of mostly dubious agents.

Now back to our stroll on River road where as you pass you hear, “Karibu auntie, mafuta ya kutoa pimples, rashes na blemishes iko.”  (welcome sister, we have oil to remove pimples rashes and blemishes as well) This will be in a conspiratorial tone which you will ignore until you meet another three other women with purple colored cheeks blocking your path with the same message until you realize that you are the auntie in question.

I didn’t get the marketing strategy of the women with burnt cheeks though because if you want to sell me skin lightening agents wouldn’t it be wise to put a prettier woman with a smoother face to be the one selling the creams and  not one whose face looks like it has been struck by lightning to do it? Anyway, I think the women with the purple/green –colored cheekbones must be doing something right if they can manage to make a living and out of what seemed like thriving business.

Vera SIdika is a locally known Socialite and video vixen in Kenya and one who is open about her use of Skin Lightening cream

So what would make a woman want to make her skin lighter and not embrace the black is beautiful saying? Hmmm some say they want to make their men happy (probably a man who can never even give them anything until the time he wants a quick lay), to make themselves happy (mostly a lie) and to make up for some childhood trauma where the young guys, teachers, friends and the society at large would give attention to the light-skinned girls and ignore the dark ones. There is also the aspect of women falling prey to the many beauty magazines, magazines and instragram that always depict lighter women as more beautiful. Let’s not even go to how all music videos (African pop ones notwithstanding ) only have light women as dancers and video vixens.

There is another reason though that quite a number of people ignore and that is bleaching to get jobs. Which jobs are these? Am sure you would want to know……these are the ones that mostly require the employees to meet many of clients directly. Such jobs include Air hostesses, waitressing, models, brand ambassadors and so on. A typical job advert will read, “I need three beautiful ladies who have experience as brand ambassadors to work in company XXX. The ladies should all be light skinned and please send your unedited photos before XXX date. Sigh! Do you want to tell me that only light-skinned women can push a brand? In a certain Whatsapp group for job seekers, the issue sparked such a heated argument that the admin could no longer control the contributors who exchanged harsh words with others running to profile pictures to make their point depending on which pigment divide you were on.

I see these adverts on a weekly basis and you can imagine them going viral every day. The desperation to get jobs is on an all time high with the current statistics putting job seekers at 40% of the population. This has led women to start bleaching in droves if only to keep the roof over their heads and food on their table. In these jobs, the women are supposed to attract customers (of course mostly men) with their beauty which is an accepted strategy but who says that dark women are not beautiful? Why speak and generalize for the men who can be attracted to dark skinned women? Are they not a turn off to the men who prefer dark-skinned woman and therefore, you miss out on their business? The sheer absurdity of it all just beats logic but it is a man’s world, right?

I wish we lived in a world where a person could apply for any job that they wanted and get it despite their looks but that will be just too much to ask for. Anita, who works in client service in a Nairobi marketing company, says that it is the clients who request for the light-skinned women and therefore their hands are tied in this.   The self-esteem of impressionable women is going down with such job adverts and they are hence turning to Mercury –ladden creams to help them achieve what God did not plan for them. We are all not Vera Sidika and hence cannot afford skin lightening in the UK at an amount that can feed a small village so we turn to what an eager marketer on River road referred to as mkorogo (a cheap mixture of different skin lighting ingredients)

The latter is a mixture of creams, some with very harsh and harmful ingredients such as steroids. Those who do not want their faces to look like those of leopards have turned to injections that are badly administered and could result in HIV, Hepatitis C, TB, permanent disfigurement, inflammation or critical infection. In one of her interviews with an international channel, socialite Vera Sidika said, “It is … society that is promoting the skin lightening or bleaching,” she says. “When you … walk into modelling agencies, the girls there who get picked up for jobs are usually fair-skinned.” I would really love for the young women to be proud Africans because we live in Africa and being dark-skinned kind of comes with the territory but then I do not have jobs to offer them so we will continue to stare helplessly as our streets are filled with purpled/green charred faces.


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