The many unintended roles, effects of masks

Monday June 29 2020
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A man wearing a face mask in Nairobi. While the key reason for wearing them is to stop the spread of Covid-19, masks have also become a fashion item.PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


As President Uhuru Kenyatta led his Jubilee Party troops to kick out an ally of Deputy President William Ruto last week, the DP sat pensively next to his boss.

But unlike other occasions, such as the release of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, when reporters could read his mood, it was easy for DP Ruto to hide his true feelings during the ouster of Majority Leader Aden Duale. This time, he was wearing a mask.

This is one of the new roles of masks. While they were intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they have evolved to play other social, criminal, economic and political roles.

Take Mr Dickson Chune. He puts on masks “not so frequently”, to avoid arrest. According to him, “the men in blue take advantage of their role to enforce the public health directive to eke out a living”. He carries the mask in his pocket, or puts it on his chin whenever he suspects police are around. “Just so when they show up, I pull the mask to cover my mouth and nose as I should.”


He recounts an occasion when he narrowly evaded arrest: “One afternoon, on my way to town, I passed through a corridor where I thought I was ‘safe’, but people were being arrested for not putting on masks. I was forced to join a group of people who were doing manual work. I had to pretend I was with them.”


Mr Cleophas Oluoch likes singing and can visualise a voice-over script and start speaking, though silently. Before masking was made mandatory, he would mutter a script in public and be mistaken to be mentally unstable.

Now, he freely enjoys humming his favourite songs, thanks to wearing a mask. “It makes me hum without anyone judging me,” he said. The transition back to bare faces, if it ever comes, Cleophas supposes, “might feel strange”.

Masks are also affecting makers and users of cosmetics.

For most of her adult life, Ms Sally Nyawira, in her late 40s, has not left her house without a layer of her famous red lipstick on. Even for an errand in her neighbourhood. Today, with the mandatory rule on wearing masks in public places, Sally feels insecure – the same feeling she used to get whenever she did not wear lipstick before the pandemic. She still wears it under her mask.

“My red lip has been a signature style ever since I was 20. There is no way things are about to change now. It’s simply a part of me, whether someone sees it or not,” she says, laughing.


On the other hand, Ms Nailah Mutheu, a digital strategist, now feels a sense of freedom from a troublesome routine: wearing make-up every day.

“Now, my colleagues and I do not put on much make-up after we started to wear masks at work,” Nailah said, adding that it saves her time in the morning.

You may think that wearing masks would depress cosmetics sales. Wrong. Sales patterns show that people now want to invest in make-up that is transfer-proof and smudge-free. Last month, beauty influencer Joanna Kinuthia launched three new lip glosses to her make-up line JoannaKCosmetics. Most of them sold out in a few hours.

But eye products are also seeing a surge in sales, because women are buying items that enhance the features that can be seen when wearing a mask.

In the US, false eyelashes averaged a 15 per cent increase in week-over-week sales in May, according to market research firm NPD Group. Mascara sales, meanwhile, grew 11 per cent in the same period, while demand for eyebrow products jumped 5 per cent. Sales of lip products, meanwhile, fell 5 per cent in May. After all, Jensen said, nobody wants lipstick smudges inside their masks.

Masks are also changing the fashion scene. Mr Samwel Katange is a tailor in Nairobi’s Eastlands. Over the past few months, he has seen an increase in clients looking for personalised masks, with the Ankara being the bestseller.


“Kitenges are an African brand. I thought we can find a nice way to be safe and fashionable at the same time,” said Samwel, who introduced masks that match his flower print outfits.

Some of Kenya’s biggest fashion names have stepped in to tap the trend, churning out designer masks for those who won’t let a pandemic get in the way of style. They include Sandstorm, Ikojn and Kiko Romeo.

The anonymity of the mask is also leading to more vices. Washington Evance was in a fix when he borrowed Sh5,000 from his friend last month, hoping to service the loan in a week’s time, but his plans failed.

“The other day, we came so close to meeting but I escaped his wrath because he could not instantly recognise my masked face. It would have turned ugly,” he said.

Dr Jeremiah Chakaya, a pulmonologist, said avoiding the spread of Covid-19 should be the major reason to wear a mask.  “When in the range of three metres or less with the closest person to you, you’re advised to put on a face mask,” he said.