The Beauticians of the CBD

By Shruti Shah

The salon along Moi Avenue is small. There are approximately 16 people packed into 40 square feet, and then some loiterers hanging around outside. An audio and visual buzz prevails within the bright yellow and green walls. Clients are seated on wooden chairs with plastic coverings, their feet raised onto stools, ready for some pampering. There are buckets laden with nail polish, numerous files and lotions, and towels forming a tapestry as they hang from window handles. The hairstylist, Janet, is working her hands patiently and methodically through the lustrous weave of her client. A row of men huddle over women’s hands and feet. A hum geared towards the end product of making appearances very easy on the eye.

Grooming is no small thing. Women in Nairobi look good, and this place is clearly in the business of making sure of that. Finances may be tight but these grooming visits are rarely missed. Delayed perhaps, but never for too long.

I am shown a seat and I squeeze in between clients and these grooming magicians. Towels are handed to me, the bubble soak is ready and I am ready for a spell of indulgence. Local style, and for half the price that I might pay at ABC place or some other all in Nairobi’s suburbs.

Makumi Stevens, my pedicurist, is soft spoken and I often struggle to hear him amongst the din of the surrounding buzz of hairdryers and chatter between his colleagues and their clients. There is an attractive lady diagonally opposite me, waiting for her polish to dry and loudly discussing her evening plans on her phone. A friend had referred the place and Makumi to me, and I’ve become a loyal customer.

Makumi tells me that he used to be a farmer, that in fact farming is his love. But Makumi explains that farming has been difficult for a whole host of reasons: the lack of rains, crop failure. A friend mentioned the occupation to him and that the earnings were good. So, he gave up farming three years ago and came to the city to follow the path of seemingly countless other male manicurists and pedicurists. He said beautifying women’s extremities has provided him with a decent steady income. Like me, most of his clients are referrals, and his skill and care have paid off, bringing him a lot of friends of friends. A good day shall mean he tends to seven or eight clients. Quieter spells bring days when only three or four clients show.

There are often days (usually evenings and certainly weekends) when women having queued at the salon have to return home, sans any grooming treatment as their favored manicurist and pedicurist is very busy. (Mental not to self: avoid weekend pedicures at all costs).

IMG-20170414-WA0062To my right, Makumi’s colleague, John Kamutai, is diligently scrubbing away at the feet of a woman called Grace. John tells me he used to be a matatu tout, and like Makumi he is happy with the change, though salon work is not his dream profession – that would be opening a business of his own.

I turn to my fellow clients – Grace to my right and, to my left, a woman who is patiently waiting for her acrylic treatment to set – and I remark that, for all the salons I have visited, from elsewhere in Nairobi to Jakarta, Mumbai, and Damascus, I have never seen men attending to the hands and feet of style-seeking women, except in Nairobi CBD.

The woman with the acrylic nails says initially it surprised her that men seems to dominate the salons of the CBD, but mostly finds it irrelevant. Grace, a commanding woman who runs a community project that deals with making plastic mats and carpets, takes a different view. She says that men will do as she asks, whereas women do as they please with her hands and feet.

Our chat gets cut off when another salon worker perches on the arm of Grace’s chair and soon they are lost in a conversation about a mat-making workshop.

The polish is almost dry and 2 hours on, my hands are buffed and pretty, and my toes, painted a resplendent lime green, feel like a million dollars! I wait as clients finish their treatments and disappear. Several more people enter and take their seats on chairs that, today, are in constant demand. Makumi and John are artists in their own right, adding color to the lives of the hordes of women who come to the salon from all walks of life and who then walk away from the salon oozing style, confidence and adding their own colorful vibrancy to the city. I may have more questions, but I realize it’s time to go. So, I walk out onto Moi Avenue, admiring my own lime green toes with every step.

20170501_111943Shruti Shah spends her time between London and Nairobi. A keen traveler, she loves Africa especially. And when possible tries to put pen to paper

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