Meet 45-year-old Mary Nafula, a mother of three, who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. Treatment saved Nafula’s life but her hair fell out, making her feel exposed and vulnerable.
Diana Akech carefully places a curly black wig over her bald head. Nafula opens her eyes and explodes in a big smile, full of relief.
“What this salon has done to us today. She has instilled confidence in us and through this, we can live positively," Nafula said. "We can embrace all the challenges that accompany us, knowing that we are going to heal.”
Cancer is the third-leading cause of death in Kenya, according to the World Health Organization, and the numbers are rising, from 37,000 reported cases in 2012 to almost 48,000 currently.
Dr. Gladwell Kiarie is an oncologist at The Nairobi Hospital. She attributes the rise to increased cancer screening and a change of lifestyle.
“We are smoking more. We are taking alcohol more," Kiarie said. "Our traditional diets have changed and we no longer eat the traditional food that we used to. We have more fatty foods. We have less water and greens in our foods, more processed food.”
The government has responded with awareness campaigns and the opening of more diagnostic centers across the country. But most Kenyans, who live on less than $3 a day, cannot afford treatment.
Nafula said she was fortunate enough to be able to pay for cancer therapy. And now having a wig, Nafula says she is relieved of feeling stigmatized, especially on the streets and often in the Kenyan public transport vehicles called “matatus.”
“I was very sick. I couldn’t walk and the matatu guy was like, ‘You sick people - you are supposed to take an ambulance. You should not enter the matatu because cancer can infect us.’ I felt so bad,” Nafula said.
Back at her hair salon, Akech is combing a wig. She started doing makeovers five years ago after a friend developed cancer. The friend lost her hair, but Akech gave her a wig.
“I shared the story on social media and everybody started nominating their friends'" Akech said. "Let me say my friend gave me the willpower to keep doing this. She’s the one who motivated me. She’s in heaven right now and I am sure she’s very proud of what I am doing.”
The wigs cost around $250 each and are paid for by donations from hospitals and companies.
For those recovering from cancer, the journey is often long and painful. A wig can ease the pain and serve as a reminder that they are not alone.