What stands out in Nairobi's smoking zones is the clear absence of women amidst the crowd of nicotine-enslaved men who turn these crammed sheds or open lots into stuffy, fume-filled dens, distinctively reeking of tobacco as the men 'kata kiu' and watch smoke lazily waft from a myriad of tobacco-stained hands.
Occasionally, a few daring women join the affable smokers to choke and stain their lungs in a moment of bliss to ease the unremitting crave for a puff. It is this that makes smoking a sociable 'bad' habit that knows no boundaries and would bring together the rich, poor, old and young from all walks of life, religion and race in a meditative and good-humoured huddle of shared obsession.
But the smoking zones were not designed with the whims of women in mind. They are too 'reja reja,' tawdry and jerrybuilt even, for a sister to comfortably indulge her cravings. But smoke they must, since this is one habit that cannot be stubbed out easily.
The city centre has five smoking zones. There is that open-air 'quarantine' at the Tusker Bus Station, where cigarette addicts can't hide their faces from a nonchalant crowd that's so used to the smokers, they hardly notice how life seem to light up their faces with each 'deadly' drag of the cigarettes. The smoking zone at Jevanjee Gardens is interesting, and even has a resident preacher who foams at the mouth as he exhorts the 'coughers' to lay down their sticks and instead smoke out men for the kingdom of God.
This is a more accommodating venue and regularly attracts one or two campus female smokers. Near the Holy Family Basilica, on the ankles of Koinange Street, is another smoking zone. Uhuru Park has another in a sitting area near the papal conical monument.
Down River Road, along Latema Road is another packed smokers' den. Not a place you would expect a woman to sashay in with swinging hips and on six-inch high heels. So where do Nairobi's birds flock for timeout to nurse lip-stick smudged sticks, delicately held between fingers with brightly-coloured nails? They, after all, don't have endearing terms for the available smoking zones.
"Have you seen the men in those areas? They look weird, it needs guts for a woman to venture into those dens,"Â saysÂ Josephine Karanja, a 27-year-oldÂ smoker.
Â As far as she is concerned, smoking is still considered a male habit and it is hard for a woman to proclaim her love for nicotine in the very public smoking zones.
However, the Koinange Street zone attracts a few women once in a while, who dart in and out for a quick relief before resuming their 'rounds' in town.
"Not many women frequent the zone, but at lunch time, and in the evening, some would step in for a smoke," Solomon Abuya, a regular at the smoking zone says.
At lunch time, it is the corporate-type women who 'pay homage' to the smoking zone, while in the evening, as Abuya points out, it's the commercial sex workers who frequent the area as they prep for their nightly business.
Discerning female smokers frequent restaurants in the town at lunchtime, from where they can draw in relative ease, mostly from balconies designated as smoking areas in the restaurants. After sating their thirst and taking a menthol to suppress the foul smell of tobacco, they would then waltz out, a contented lot.
"We opt for restaurants, particularity upmarket ones where you don't get frowned on for smoking and which always have designated smoking areas. The other convenient places are in our cars or homes. I avoid smoking in other public places where people can be very judgmental," says Janet Muthoni, a scriptwriter for a local TV station.
I came across a rare sight in one of the smoking zones, where a lone woman was really at home in the company of men chatting with intermittent wafts of smokes from flared nostrils and parted lips. Her camaraderie with fellow smokers was infectious. She says she feels at ease in the smoking zones with her "comrades" because they are less judgmental.
It is easy to see the disconnect between the public smoking zones and the women smokers. These women are the exposed, educated and independent lot, with some level of sophistication that demands finesse. Of course, I am deliberately ignoring the wannabe college-going girls still experimenting with alcohol and other 'smokables' in an attempt to 'fit.'
Â (SIDEBAR 1) Let's puff in the basement
Women who smoke have an eye for convenient places to light up:
1. Basement and office parking lots: These offer some form of privacy and are not as busy, say for an exhausted guard.
2. Roof tops:Â They are proximate to the office and afford a liberating view from a vantage point that even 'kanjo' wouldn't bother to raid.
3. Office balconies: They are particularly popular with ladies working in residential houses converted into offices. They are convenient, private and even relaxing.
4. In cars: It is your space and familiar. The ultimate sanctuary for a stranded female smoker.
Â 5. Restaurants:They sip coffee or drink beer and drag on their Dunhill sticks in designated areas. Shisha dens have made life even easierÂ for female smokers who also enjoy the wildly popular oriental invention.
SIDEBAR 2: Smoking zones a relief for non-smokers
Not many bylaws by the county council can easily be enforced. However, the ban on smoking in public seems to have held for almost six years,Â at least within the CBD.
James Matwa, a 50-year-old civil servant recalls when smoking was a 'nuisance.'
"People smoked everywhere, even in matatus. It was so annoying because the smokers didn't care about crammed space or poor ventilation. Today, even matatu drivers only smoke when they don't have passengers," says the relieved father of three. "At least the 'nuisance' of smoking in public places is not an issue anymore," says Elizabeth Wangui, a Nairobi resident.
Even pubs and restaurants now have designated areas where people can light up as they sip their drinks.
But smoking zones make smoking doubly hazardous, since the the sellers are exposed to secondary smoking for up to 10 hours daily.
In addition, some smoking zones, like the ones at Jevanjee Gardens and the bus station, are 'open-air' areas in crowded places, which expose non-smokers to nicotine and other harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke.
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