Getting a massage or a facial has become nearly as routine as going for a date night. And as the holiday season approaches and spas get fully booked or become a little bit pricey, there are a group of people that are ready to knead aching muscles of tourists winding down after months of juggling chaotic lifestyles. Meet the roaming masseuses.
These women come to your hotel room or home or Airbnb villa, with their equipment or not, and massage you for about an hour, away from the confines of a luxurious spa where miniature lanterns burn and oriental music chimes. Apparently, not every tourist wants to book a spa massage or a luxurious spa treatment.
For many travellers, it is the talented hands that they yearn; it does not matter if the massage is done under a tree or in a bedroom.
Mitchel Kandi who works in a small massage parlour in Mombasa has been massaging from Airbnb guests to those who own holiday homes in the Coast.
Her parlour, which no name, looks nothing like the high-end massage spaces with black walls and flowers in tiny bowls. She says tourists, mostly from Canada, Germany and the US, line up outside her shelter to get her magic touch. Besides doing the massages in her small shop, she says most of her clients prefer that she goes to their houses, cottages, hotels and villas.
Just like many masseuses in the Coastal region, she is only a phone call away or an ocean away if a customer is in Diani and she has to cross the sea using a ferry. For over six years, massage therapy has been Ms Kandi’s bread and butter. She says she has many repeat customers and they keep coming because of her natural massage oils such as aloe vera.
“If I use aloe vera oil, the tourists don’t get sunburns. They leave wondering what magic I applied them,” she says.
Ms Kandi did not attend a massage therapy school, but she says she is a master in enhancing blood circulation in the body and has learnt the art of a perfect touch.
“Before performing a massage on a tourist, I first ask about their medical history. Have they had surgery? Do they have allergic reactions to the oils? And what kind of massage do they love?” she says.
She combines different kinds of techniques; Thai, Swedish, deep, slow, smooth and reflexology on the head and legs. At her parlour, she charges Sh2,500 while holidaymakers pay Sh3,500 for home visits.
“But sometimes I am called to a house which has about 14 people who want to be massaged. For a big group the price is negotiable. I take breaks in between the customers and charge Sh1,300,” she says.
The roaming masseuses are becoming more popular and sometimes they disguise themselves as visitors to gain access to their clients’ hotel rooms. Some have links with hotels and are called when tourists need them. But spa owners argue that these unregistered massage parlours and are denying them business.
With Kenya among Airbnb’s top growth markets in Africa, getting a share of the more than 3.5 million customers who rent homes in Watamu, Mombasa, Malindi, Kisumu and Nairobi, it is booming business for these roaming massage therapists.
Kenya’s regulated spa and wellness sector hit Sh5 billion last year, according to Spa and Wellness Association of Africa Kenyan Chapter. With a projection of 10 per cent per year according to committee member Winnie Taylor, the sector is expected to attract more people in the business.
They have been seeking to raise their standards to cater to the demand from well-travelled wellness tourists. Most high-end hotels, for instance, have brought in masseuses from Thailand to cater for guests who want an exotic feel.
There are many spas opening countrywide and others in airport lounges offering facials, massages and scrubs to fight jet lag.
According to Global Wellness Institute, spas in sub-Saharan region employ about 28,911 people, but there are hundreds of others who are not registered or formally trained.
Amina Christina popularly known as ‘Amina Massage’ is another roaming masseuse. She mainly visits Diani and Tiwi beaches that have many holiday cottages, villas and homes.
“Most of the clients especially in Tiwi have their own cottages so they call me when they come for holiday. In some cases, we go to the hotels as visitors, do our job then leave or sometimes the hotels without spas contact us if a guest requests,’’ she says, adding that more than 80 per cent of her clients are vacationers from England and Germany.
For first timers, she charges Sh2,000 a session.
“When I do massage for the first time and a tourist tells me to come back tomorrow, I know I did it well,” says Ms Christina, who has been at it for 12 years and also worked in lodges in Maasai Mara.
As the holiday season approaches, another masseuse Margaret Ndunge is exercising her hands in readiness for the tourists. She operates a hair salon in Mtwapa, Kilifi but still offers on-demand massage services.
“Most people prefer I massage their pressure points using oils that have a mix of eucalyptus,” she says, adding that her clients make bookings even before travelling.
“When they land, I go there and do the massage,” she adds.
Because the masseuse operate informally, their businesses come with challenges.
“Some people will call for a massage but their thinking and perception is different from what I do. Such a person may disturb me but I explain well what the massage entails and they understand,” Ms Christina says.
To avoid such challenges Ms Kandi says she only does house calls during the day. “You cannot just call me to come to your place and not at night,” she says.