Vera Sidika and Bridget Achieng
  • River Road is now the home illegal skin bleaching products
  • A single tube of cream cost her Sh6,000
  • Majority of backstreet skin lightening products are dangerous and harmful

Nairobi’s River Road is known for many things, among them prostitution, illegal hawking, fake goods and genuine but stolen goods.

More recently, it has become the home of illegal skin bleaching products thanks to the belief among women that Kenyan men love women with ‘whiter' skin.

Ever since achieving a lighter skin complexion, actress Eunice Wambui has had to deal with a lot of male attention.

“Oh! I get hit on so frequently by guys,” she says exuberantly. “I mean, the number of times I get hit on exceeds – by far – the time before I started lightening my skin.”

Ms Wambui, otherwise known as Nyasuguta, the character she played on KBC’s sitcom, 'Vitimbi', had always had dark skin. Pictures of her with caramelised skin began appearing online last year, provoking many questions.

Confirming that she is actually lighter than before, Wambui says she was compelled to lighten her skin to cover a scar she got from a road accident injury.

“I didn’t like the scar. I needed people to stop staring at it. I needed to clear up the scar.”

Wambui bought ‘medically certified’ creams from Dubai.

Ms Wambui alias Nyasuguta

“I didn’t want to use something that would harm me. I had to spend a lot of money to get these creams,” she says.

Single tube

A single tube of cream cost her Sh6,000. Within three months she had started noticing the results.

The scar might be the straw that broke the camel’s back but Wambui had always harboured light-skin ambitions as a teenager, she says, adding, “You know, God gives you the desires of your heart.”

Wambui does not want or hope to go back to her dark-skinned days.

“A dark person is associated with difficulties and struggles in life. A light-skinned person is associated with success,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Let’s be honest. This is the truth: Light skinned people are associated with good things.”

Wambui confesses that she feels more beautiful today than she did years before.

“When I meet men, they commend me. Only boys who cannot afford the Sh6,000 I use to buy my creams are quick to judge and criticise my looks,” she says.

The cost of skin lightening can be millions of shillings. Vera Sidika, known for her risqué exploits in the entertainment industry, admitted during a TV interview to spending Sh17,671,500 on skin lightening treatment in the United Kingdom.

“My body is my business and it is a money maker,” she said.

Explaining her decision, Ms Sidika said society was to blame.

“Society promotes skin lightening or bleaching. When you walk into modelling agencies, the girls who get picked for jobs are usually fair-skinned.”

Unlike Sidika, Bridget Achieng (also a showbiz personality who, like Sidika, is often referred to in the media as a socialite) started off with Sh2,000 creams from River Road.

“The products I bought weren’t any particular brands. They were mixtures of creams. They worked – my skin was lightening by the day,” says Ms Achieng.

In lightening her skin, she was ensuring that her brand, primarily represented by her body, would be associated with beauty. Achieng grew up not believing that she was beautiful.

“My mother never told me I was beautiful. I don’t blame her because we lived a life of struggle – she had so much to deal with in fending for us, her children. But had I been assured that I was beautiful I don’t think I would have bleached.”

Loves attention

Achieng loves the attention she receives from ‘men of repute’ today; adding that there is no girl who would feel proud of being hit on by a 'chokoraa' (street boy).

“Now I star in a reality show and get called a lot to club host,” she says. “Plus, nowadays I can easily get things done my way.”

Today, both Achieng and Wambui run businesses selling skin lightening creams. Wambui's products cost anything between Sh6,000 and Sh10,000 while Achieng's – imported from Thailand and Egypt – fetch between Sh7,000 and Sh20,000 apiece.

“I have a massive customer base. It is this business that actually sustains my living. The money I make from my other engagements does not compare to what the business brings in,” Achieng offers.

She stopped using skin lightening products from River Road because “they are harmful; they contain mercury".

She says she got stretchmarks after using them for a while.

“I am going for laser treatment soon to get rid of the stretchmarks,” she says.

Skin lightening, known in street lingo as "kutoa tint", is now an undeniable practice in Kenya.

While on a mission to find out how easy it is to access skin lightening products from a chemist in Nairobi’s central business district, this writer asked for an injection.

“We don’t have those here. But you can go to Mombasa House along River Road; you will find them there,” the chemist attendant advised.

At Mombasa House, a narrow flight of stairs leads to a network of stalls and shops – all accessible via a labyrinth of passageways. Immediately, two women (perhaps co-owners of a stall) pull me to their shop. Beauty products stretch from shelf to shelf.

“What do you need? You want the mix?” one asks, throwing my memory back to Achieng's description of the first product she used.

“I want something to lighten my skin,” I say.

Several options

“We have several options. Do you want one that works quicker or slower?”

“Quicker,” I answer.

“Okay,” she says. “The one that works faster is a little expensive. It will cost you Sh1,500. But if you want a wholesome product, one we mix with other ingredients, you will pay Sh3,000 for it.”

“Which product is the cheapest among all these?” I prod on, negotiating to mask my intentions.

The creams come in different sizes and prices. Some are as cheap as Sh150. But since I want something ‘affordable’ the lady suggested a “moderately pricey product” - a packaging labelled Hot Movate Gel, Fast Action.

I pay Sh500 for it.

Pranav Pancholi, a cosmetic dermatosurgeon at Avane’ Clinic in Nairobi’s Yaya Centre, says the majority of backstreet lightening products are dangerous and harmful.

“These products contain dangerous chemicals – mercury and hydroquinone among others – which cause skin cancer, ochronosis, kidney and liver damage,” Dr Pancholi observes.

The skin specialist often receives patients with skin eruptions and infections.

“I can often tell, even before examining them, that they have used dangerous products to lighten their skin.”