Nowhere is the dramatic inequality of Africa visible as much as in Nairobi. There, the largest slum in Africa where people have no sanitation and no access to clean water is surrounded by golf courts and large mansions of Kenya’s richest.
For years, the Kibera slum has been deemed a no-go zone because of extreme poverty prevalent there. And yet, some of Kibera’s residents I interacted with are amongst kindest, most ambitious people I have ever met.
At the end of the day, the only difference between us in the West and them is that they were unlucky enough to be born in one of the most impoverished areas of the world. If one is born in the slum, they do not have any documents and cannot afford education. In turn, they get stuck in an endless cycle of poverty.
With no qualifications, their prospects of finding employment are very limited. That is why the majority of people living in Kibera work as casual workers, cleaning cars or washing clothes.
Equipping residents of the slum with skills and training that would allow them to find an alternative, more secure employment is one of the biggest challenges for NGOs operating there.
During my time in Kibera I got a chance to shadow UCESCO, an organisation committed to empowering people, especially women, in Kibera and other slums around Nairobi. UCESCO realised that one of the ways for families to earn an income differently is to start a beauty business. That is why the organisation established the Lovely Looks college.
The Lovely Looks college was established by UCESCO, an NGO that empowers women living in slums
The demand for beauty services in Kibera is high as people need to get their hair trimmed regularly and many women enjoy having their nails or eyebrows done. Owning a beauty salon or even just working for one gives women and girls a chance for a better future.
The Lovely Looks college is located in one of thousands of Kibera’s narrow streets and, just like most houses there, is made of iron sheets and there are no windows and no real floor, just bare ground.
Like most houses in Kibera, the premises of the Lovely Looks college are made of iron sheets
To make the place look more welcoming and friendly, however, UCESCO together with women living in the slum painted the iron sheets on the inside and hung handmade decorations. Thanks to that when I was inside the college, for a moment I would forget that outside the alleys are paved with garbage, as well as human and animal waste.
UCESCO and women who attend the beauty classes decorated the college’s premises
Women who sign up to the college learn the basics of beauty treatments such as manicure, pedicure, and hairdressing. Each week they cover a different thematic block and they learn both theory and practice. The goal of the classes is to offer them professional training that will allow them to provide these services to others and receive payment for them.
UCESCO does more than train the women in beauty treatments, however. It also focuses on entrepreneurial, business management, and customer service skills. The organisation explains to women how to set up and then run their own business and how to interact with customers. Thanks to that, women can create a career for themselves and stop being financially dependent on their husbands.
The Lovely Looks college also equips women with skills needed to manage their own business
Women who come to the Lovely Looks college learn how to perform basic beauty treatments
The Lovely Looks college has the power to change the lives of women living in the Kibera slum. Unfortunately, however, running the programme comes with numerous challenges.
Even though the living conditions in Kibera are degrading, residents of the slum need to pay rent each month. How much they have to pay depends on the size of the house but, on average, they need to spend 10,000 kenyan shillings. That equals to around 90 USD, which is a lot given that the majority of households earn only 2 USD a day.
UCESCO and the Lovely Looks college rely almost entirely on donations so getting money to fund their operations is the major challenge they are dealing with. While UCESCO can support Lovely Looks with paying for the premises, not much money is left to buy necessary equipment. Until recently the college did not even have a hairdryer or an electric razor so the scope of the training it could offer to women was limited. Luckily now, thanks to the help of international volunteers that support UCESCO, these items have been purchased and the college can keep growing.
Thanks to the help of volunteers, the Lovely Looks college now has a professional hairdryer
Environmental constraints are also a significant barrier that women who take part in beauty classes face. Despite years of promoting female empowerment, in Kibera women are still viewed as inferior to men. Many of the slum’s residents disapprove of women wanting to start their own businesses as they believe men should be responsible for earning income and women should stay at home and take care of children.
For Lovely Looks’ mission to be successful, changing people’s mindset is essential and even more attention needs to be paid to advancing gender equality. The women who participate in the beauty classes are inspirational and committed to working hard to provide a better future for their children. All of them are extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend the Lovely Looks college and they take joy in learning new things. That is why, it is heartbreaking to see that because of harmful cultural preconceptions regarding gender roles, they cannot fully realise their potential.
Women who participate in beauty classes enjoy learning something new each week
The progress in the field of women empowerment might be slow but UCESCO and everyone involved in running the beauty classes are doing an amazing job and are making a positive impact in the lives of women living in Kibera. Despite the challenges, the beauty classes are the one initiative that can actually ensure women have the resources to stand up for themselves and, hopefully one day, leave Kibera.
About the author:
Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm based in the UK but operating globally. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries.