“I have fewer customers,” the mother of three explained from her wooden stall near the Dandora dumpsite, as vehicle horns blared in the background. “If you are not going to work, there is no need to style your hair.”
The Stylist Julia Wanja picks her way delicately through piles of food waste, discarded masks, rubber gloves and other rubbish at Nairobi’s Dandora dumpsite, looking for used hair extensions she can clean and resell to customers.
The current coronavirus pandemic means fewer clients with less money, therefore she has to cut down on costs by cleaning and reselling hair from the dumpsite.
Wanja explains that she carefully washes the used hair extensions using apposite detergent, Dettol and hot water to make sure the hair is well-sanitised. Most of her customers trust her to wash the hair well, although a few like to clean it themselves too.
Like other scavengers, she wears a mask to search through the trash for used hair.
“We cannot allow anyone to enter the dumpsite without a mask on,” fellow scavenger Denis Githaiga said, as he ripped through piles of plastic bags.
Officials direct trucks to dump their loads depending on where the waste has come from. Domestic and commercial waste - which includes bags of hair extensions discarded by other salons - goes to different sections. Medical waste is usually burned, for example.
Since 2008, Wanja has been selling second-hand hair but says there is more demand now since the pandemic broke out. Many people cannot afford new hair extensions due to the financial crisis COVID-19 caused.
“New hair is more expensive than second-hand hair,” the 38-year-old said. “People don’t have money right now,” and even if they had, their priority would be probably different.
Wanja’s customers explain that if the hair has been deep cleaned, clients do not mind where it comes from. The hair looks new: long, luxuriant locks hang from the walls in Wanja’s stall or are perched on a battered Styrofoam head.
“The hair bought new from a shop and bought used only differs in price. But once it is plaited, there is no difference,” smiled Cecilia Githigia, as Wanja’s fingers worked a weave into her hair.