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‘Trendy’ Shisha becoming a glue for many new Nairobi city smokers

By David Odongo | May 26th 2013

By David Odongo

NAIROBI, KENYA: It is Friday evening at Nairobi’s Café Habibi. A group of ladies has occupied one table. They are having fun, sipping from wine glasses and shrieking loudly whenever a joke is cracked.  A few minutes later, the wine glasses are pushed aside to make room for Shisha. The sweet fruity aroma of flavoured tobacco wafts slowly across the room. It is tempting.

I order the strawberry flavour. The waiter is swift. In no time I have a small glass-bottomed water pipe in which the fruit-flavoured tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal.

I pull from a pipe, letting the smooth, rich and tasty smoke fill my lungs before slowly exhaling, savouring every second.

Shisha, it seems, is becoming a social barometer. No city entertainment joint worth its salt lacks a shisha lounge. It is smoked by young and old, in private and public places. Some social events have been used to promote shisha smoking, and on this, the youth, male and female, are not being left behind. As a result, a few people have grabbed business opportunities and are hoping that many more smokers will be recruited. For others, it has been a business running for years.

“We sell a lot of it. Nearly every customer smokes shisha in between breaks while drinking. It is aromatic and even the ladies have no qualms about smoking it,” says a waiter at the hotel. His nametag reads John.

So prevalent is the Shisha habit that all five-star hotels in Nairobi have a lounge for it.

Laico Regency, a four-star, has one of the oldest Shisha lounges in the country. The brown and earth red heavy cushions and the draping give the hotel’s Shisha Lounge a warm and earthly ambience. The seats are low and everything in the room looks Arabic. I also notice behind a counter sits the biggest shisha glasses I have ever seen.

The management is, however, not so keen on engaging in the shisha conversation.

A waiter, however, lets it slip that most prominent Kenyans and envoys spend many evenings at Laico, smoking Shisha.

It reminds me of the sight of one envoy’s aide smoking the stuff at his residence in Yaya Centre recently. He did that in the presence of his wife and children, and insists it is healthier than smoking a normal cigarette and that the smoke emitted from his lungs have zero effect on those around him.

Sly, a reveler at Nairobi West’s West Mall says she prefers Shisha to cigarettes. “Shisha is sweet, and it doesn’t stink like cigarettes. I can go home and nobody will even know I smoked since it is fruit flavoured,” she says.

Her friend Muthoni concurs. “It’s not as harsh as cigarettes. Though it is expensive, it is worth every penny,” says Muthoni.

Origin unclear

At the social joint, it costs Sh300 for a medium size Shisha. A large one goes for Sh450, while the smallest is Sh200.

“The small one can be smoked for only 10 minutes. But if we are in a group, we get the big one, and take turns to smoke. It is cool, and a lot of fun. I love trying out different flavours. Sometimes I mix (flavours),” says Sly.

It is not clear where shisha (originally sheesha in Egypt) was invented, but India, Persia, Egypt and Turkey are familiar names whenever the origin question is posed.

The tobacco smoke is passed through a water chamber in the multi-stemmed bottle, also called hookah, which is thought to have first been used in the 17th century in India.  A shisha/hookah consists of a base, pipe, bowl and mouthpiece. Tobacco is placed in the bowl, which is at the top of the pipe structure. An aluminum foil covers the bowl and small charcoal pieces are then placed on the foil, which is punctured using a pin to gently heat the tobacco. When smoked using the hose; aromatic vapor is filtered through the base containing water. It also comes in floral flavours such as coconut, vanilla and rose.

Ms Rose Korir is the biggest supplier of Shisha in Nairobi. Through Shisha Delites, a company she owns, she now supplies many individuals and famed entertainment joints in Nairobi and Nakuru.

“I started Shisha Delites in December 2011. I used to go with my friends for rugby, and we would carry shisha and smoke it. People were curious and wanted to try it, so it became a business,” says Korir.

She has 15 attendants who serve shisha at various entertainment joints. She also trains people on how to use shisha. “Most entertainment joints just want the employees to be trained on the usage and packing of shisha,” says Korir. She imports the shisha from Dubai and Egypt. Each goes for an average of Sh600.

She sells an average 200 hookahs every Friday and is invited to private functions every weekend. “There isn’t much profit yet, but I know soon, the shisha industry will grow.”

She plans to open an exclusive shisha lounge. Shisha Delites, she says, gets more customers from referrals and their page on Facebook.

Socialite Budha Blaze says he first noticed shisha in Kenyan clubs five years ago. “I had spent some years in the Middle East and when I came back I was surprised to see shisha in Kenyan restaurants,” says Mr Blaze.

Some of the prominent Kenyans spotted smoking shisha include musician Prezzo, Fidel Odinga and Tanya, a former Tahidi High actress.

Mr Amor Thige, who manages SkyLux Club, says he caters for a small niche market. Skylux has operated a shisha lounge for the past three years. Amor says most keen shisha lovers are usually male above 30 years. Skyluxx has even introduced an electronic shisha.

“It has up to 500 puffs, and doesn’t have tobacco. It is healthier since what is inhaled is just flavoured vapour. It has no side effects,” says Amor.

“To some, it is just a fad that they engage in as they drink, and that’s why we introduced electronic shisha. A select few just come to Skylux to smoke their shisha. They don’t even drink. It is their way of bonding,” says Amor.  But to buy the electronic shisha, one pays Sh1,500 compared to the tobacco shisha which costs Sh1,000.

“The shisha lovers are predominantly young. We get as many ladies as men smoking the shisha,” he says.

One Wicked, who runs Evaray Shisha Pub in Umoja next to Plan B, says most smokers are relatively new to shisha and are mostly below 45 years. “Some just try it once, but most are repeat customers. I have never seen a shisha addict,” he says.

Wicked says a small shisha apparatus for home use costs between Sh3,500 and Sh4,500. “The largest apparatus with two pipes costs Sh9,000.” He says one kilogram tobacco costs Sh2,500 while that of 200g costs Sh350. “The small one can serve five sessions of shisha smoking,” he says.

Shisha is sold to the public at Diamond Plaza in Parklands and a shop next to the food court at Village Market. Most dealers import shisha from Dubai or Egypt. “Dubai is easier because you can send some of the many Kenyan business people who frequent there,” says Wicked. He is not comfortable discussing how much profit he gets.

Shisha lounge

Wicked, says Shisha, isn’t just an uptown trend. He has been in the shisha business for two years and initially started as a distributor to clubs.

“I eventually opened my own place to supplement the income I get from distribution. I turned to Eastlands. Although my newly opened shisha bar has not broken even, I am sure in a few months I will get a return on my investment,” he says. Skyluxx Club has an exclusive shisha lounge, separate from the common drinking area and the dance floor. “We built a separate shisha lounge to cater for revelers who don’t want smoke blown their way. The smoke does not go beyond the shisha lounge,” says the Skyluxx manager. There are other smaller shops in Eastleigh that sell shisha.


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