Naima Said stands back and studies her handiwork.
“Not quite,” the self-taught beautician said, her forehead furrowed in frustration.
Then she delicately dabs her client’s eyelid with a squishy makeup sponge, but she is not finished yet.
Several years ago, the 31-year-old Said used YouTube videos to train herself in everything from dying hair to pedicures. Now she runs the Beauty Corner — a small, but perfectly formed parlor in Mombasa, Kenya.
Every weekday at 8am, she lays out her equipment and waits for women to walk through the door. Like Said, those who seek out her services are addicted to heroin, or in recovery.
Housed in the Reachout Centre Trust, a Kenyan organization that helps Mombasa residents to fight drug addiction, the parlor opened last year with the aim of attracting more female users to its services, which include HIV testing, counseling, methadone treatment and cervical cancer screening.
Said was a heroin user for 10 years.
After her father ran out of money to pay for private school, she was at a loose end, she said.
Aged 17, she started smoking marijuana with her friends. By 21, she was a “full-blown” heroin addict.
“I was half-dead, half-alive,” she said. “I started selling sex to pay for my next hit. On the streets, you need to look beautiful, but I looked dirty. I was a junkie. People would see me and get scared.”
Until recently, hard drugs — especially heroin — were rare in Africa, but since 2010, heroin use has increased faster across the continent than anywhere else in the world, a 2017 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said.
While help is available at more than 50 registered treatment and rehabilitation centers across the country, rehabilitation is rarely free and women are falling through the cracks.
“Female drug users have very specific needs and their needs aren’t being met,” Reachout program manager Faiza Hamid said.
A key problem is stigma: Many participate in sex work to fund their drug habit and this prevents them from accessing treatment.
Concerns about childcare, hard-to-reach treatment centers and relationship issues — the women often live with a partner with their own substance problem — also stop many from coming for help.
If women do seek out treatment, they are likely to drop out faster and experience higher risks of HIV infection.
At the same time, there is a clear lack of services tailored to women’s needs and the majority of rehabilitation centers are aimed at men.
That is where the Beauty Corner comes in.
“I talk to these girls,” said Said, Reachout’s first female methadone patient, who was chosen by the clinic’s director to manage the parlor after attending counseling sessions.
Said has been clean for five years.
“I say to them: ‘What you see on the outside is drug addiction, and self-loathing. You are beautiful. You’re a mother, a daughter, a sister.’ As I paint their nails, I say: ‘Why don’t you start methadone? Why don’t you check your [HIV] status?’ When it works, it’s like magic,” Said added.
For years, few female users showed up for Reachout’s services — they simply did not see the point of coming.
Hamid came up with the idea of the Beauty Corner. The aim was to get women through the door and to make them feel special — even for a short while — before bringing up other, more difficult issues.
It seems to be working. In under a year, 453 women have come to the parlor and there has been a “big uptake” of women using the clinical services, Hamid said.
For example, cervical cancer screenings have risen 34 percent. Said sees on average 15 women every day.
As the parlor filled up, three women sat side-by-side, chatting quietly. One of them was 34-year-old Elizabeth Yieko, her hair a tangle of brightly colored rollers. A former addict, she was introduced to the Beauty Corner by a friend.
“I could not believe it,” she said, after seeing her friend. “She was so clean, had makeup on, nicely done hair with red lipstick. I saw how women who have sold their lives to drugs can still have a life. I felt transformed.”
Yieko had already stopped smoking heroin. Today, she visits hotspots frequented by female users to spread the word about the Beauty Corner. She has so far brought 10 women to the parlor.
Said would like to do more.
“I’m happy I’m helping people, but it’s not good enough. I think about the future,” she said. “What about life after the methadone? Where are we going to go? For people born and raised in the drug dens, their home is the drug den. We need to find a place for women.”
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