Kenya has now joined Rwanda and Tanzania in East Africa in banning the smoking of water-pipe tobacco, popularly known as shisha (or sheesha).
If one keeps to the purist tradition, shisha tobacco is mixed with molasses or honey and, unlike the tobacco cigarettes that contain industrial chemicals and artificial additives, it’s made of only natural substances.
Its champions say that makes it relatively “safe”.
However, the authorities say that the only thing safe about shisha is the hookah through which it is smoked; otherwise, it is a dangerous concoction that is full of full of all sorts of addictive drugs that is taking our youth straight to hell.
They are, probably, right.
The ban, not surprisingly, has been ridiculed on youth-dominated social media with many saying it is the least of Kenya’s problems.
Perhaps one of the bigger problems with the shisha bans we are seeing in East Africa is the policy incoherence associated with them. Unless you totally ban tobacco and smoking, it doesn’t make sense to ban shisha, which is still used by fewer people than smoke cigarettes.
The health authorities also say shisha is a conduit for alcohol abuse, which it might be. However, alcohol is only controlled, not banned.
This suggests that the reasons given for the bans are a red herring. The bigger problem with sisha seems to be rather simple, really: It is a strange creature that does not lend itself to being taxed either as a drink, cigarette or food. Secondly, because it is communal recreation, people get their fix for a far lower cost than they would from smoking, say, a pipe or cigarette.
That effectively ends up taking money away from tobacco companies, which remain among the biggest taxpayers despite all the opprobrium they have received in recent years.
Beyond the concerns about health, then, there is a need to understand the social meaning of shisha in East Africa today.
Originating in India in the 15th Century, shisha snaked its way into the Middle East and became the fashionable fix for the Ottoman empire elite before making its way into North Africa.
Street coffee culture
My first encounter with shisha was on the streets of Cairo many years ago as a journalist. I wrote about it then as intricately linked to the street coffee culture. It had a proletarian tinge to it and was democratic in the sense that there was quite some degree of freedom in discussing politics in President Hosni Mubarak’s illiberal times.
It took nearly 15 years before I saw a hookah in our neck of the woods, outside the east African coast and some Somali communities. It became mainstream as a result of globalisation. For a while, it was consumed in parties by expatriates and African hipsters.
In the post-Cold War era, as Africa opened up and the economies of the Gulf (especially the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) modernised, and thousands of Africans travelled back and forth as traders, and as many stayed there to work, what might be called an “Oriental-Arabisation” of Sub-Saharan Africa culture took off.
It took many forms, including the displacement of the past big shop owned by an Asian family to small kiosks or stalls owned by the rising class of African small-scale business women in the big towns.
This coincided with the rise of sports pubs, driven by the explosion of the popularity of European football leagues, a boom in Africa’s youthful population and new forms of social organising made possible by the internet and the mobile phone.
Shisha has become the glue that holds Africa’s millennials together, the pool in which they drown the angst of their age. But also, it is important in a time of globalisation as, perhaps, the one strong trend that did not have its roots in the West.
None of this is to say the devil does not live in shisha. Rather, that banning it is ineffective and will only drive it underground and make it more fashionable as a counter-culture and counter-establishment indulgence.
The young people probably think that fellows who smoked cigarettes, stole their parents’ gin and stuffed themselves with LSDs have, in a fit of midlife jealousy, taken away their favourite object of benign sin.
A better path might be to regulate and licence shisha. We might not see it yet but I think there surely must be something good from having such diverse groups of young people gathering around hookahs.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]