Revealed: The shisha ban that never was
For Keshi (not her real name), a 35-year-old city lawyer, smoking shisha is the perfect way to unwind after a day’s hustle in Nairobi.
"After a long day, I'll go to a shisha lounge and just smoke with friends or sometimes alone. It relaxes me. In the same way that some people will enjoy a glass of red wine or need a cigarette to keep going while they're working, I like to enjoy my shisha. If I don't do it, it feels like I'm missing something,” she offers.
She began smoking shisha regularly five years ago, and because of her busy schedule decided to buy her own bong (or hookah) to smoke at home on days she cannot make it to her favourite shisha joint.
She smokes six times a week.
"It's part of my routine. It's just nice to have it bubbling in the background when I'm relaxing in the house unwinding or sometimes when I carry my work home," she added.
Mwangi (not his real name), a former chef, has been smoking shisha for nearly 15 years. He was first introduced to it while working in Dubai.
“I started smoking when I was 25 years old. I will never forget that first drag – the head rush, the thrill, the smell and the taste. It is now 15 years later and I’m still in an on and off relationship with shisha,” he said.
The 40-year-old returned to Kenya in 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic hit and his career went into limbo.
He thought his move back to Kenya would finally help him quit smoking shisha as it was banned in the country, but that was never to be.
To curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the government closed bars and nightclubs, where shisha is mostly sold.
That forced many people to start holding parties in their homes.
With nothing much to do, Mwangi found himself house hopping almost every day of the week, partying with his new friends in the leafy suburbs of Lavington.
"When I left Dubai, I knew that was the end of my ‘toxic relationship’ with shisha, mostly because it is banned in Kenya or so I thought. However, during the house parties hosted by my friends, we would smoke it. This was not new – we did the same in Dubai, almost everyone had a shisha pot at home," Mwangi noted.
In 2017, Kenya implemented a comprehensive ban on shisha, including the use, import, manufacture, sale, offer of sale, advertising, promotion, distribution and encouraging or facilitating its use.
"Any person who contravenes any provision of these rules may, where a penalty has not been expressly provided for under any provision of the Act, be liable to the penalty contemplated under section 163 of the Act," the then Health CS Cleopa Mailu said on December 27, 2017 when he announced the ban.
Dr Mailu also noted that in Kenya, shisha was a gateway to the consumption of other hard drugs such as heroin and bhang.
In 2014, before the ban was enacted, the anti-drug abuse agency Nacada, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, banned 19 shisha flavours found to contain bhang, heroin and cocaine.
According to the report, 79.2 percent of the shisha samples collected tested positive for heroin.
"The findings give an indication that adulteration of shisha with heroin may be an endemic problem in the country and there is a likelihood that shisha may be emerging as a concealment route for heroin trafficking," the report read.
For the 15 years Mwangi had smoked shisha, he never came across laced shisha, but the house parties introduced him to the new way of smoking the substance.
For the first time, he smoked shisha laced with heroin (opiates), cocaine, and marijuana/bhang, and instead of using water, they used different brands of whisky.
Two months ago, the Nation embarked on a journey to uncover how easily one can get the banned substance in the city.
We visited pubs and entertainment joints on Mombasa Road, Thika Road, Ngong Road, Lang'ata, Westlands, Parklands, Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Lavington to have a first-hand look at the lucrative business that continues to thrive despite the ban.
Shisha smoking has gradually become popular in Kenya among young people, especially in cities and towns with many bars.
Flavoured brands, such as fruit shisha, have become particularly popular, with young people attracted to shisha's romantic allure – it is seen as fashionable and exotic.
For between Sh500 and Sh3,500, depending on the location, two to five friends can get a shisha pot to share.
During the investigations, we established that shisha is either sold directly by the club or a third party is allowed to sell it to revellers and share the profits with the club owner.
We moved from one club to another, buying shisha. And while it was hard to get laced shisha, we later learnt that the sellers knew their regular customers. They would only sell to new customers who have been introduced to them by their regular customers.
The Nation sought to know where shisha was sold, how easily it was available and how it enters Kenya.
To achieve this, a Nation reporter masqueraded as a businessperson who wanted to venture into the shisha business in different parts of the country.
A source who sold shisha in 2014 introduced his supplier to our reporter and luckily, Mustafa (not his real name) was still in the business, more than a decade on.
We asked Mustafa to guide us on what we needed to set up the business, and he was very generous with the information.
Our source and Mustafa met when the latter worked in a city club. Years later, Mustafa owns several shisha joints across the country, mostly in the cities.
After days of speaking on the phone, we met Mustafa in Eastleigh, where he showed us different suppliers of shisha.
Investigations revealed that the shisha business was a tightly protected venture, mostly because it involved a banned substance.
If you walked alone on the busy streets of Eastleigh, where Mustafa took us, you would easily assume the stores were only selling miraa (khat).
However, behind the miraa, the stores hide tonnes of shisha paraphernalia that are only accessible to the chosen few.
"If you came here alone, no one would sell shisha to you. We have a very small circle, we know one another, this helps us avoid arrest. You know this thing is banned in the country?" Mustafa posed.
To start a shisha lounge, one requires different shisha flavours such as mint, orange, cherry, grape and apple.
In 2014, Nacada banned 19 shisha flavours that contained bhang, heroin and cocaine.
Among them were the Al Fakher brand’s strawberry, orange, two apples with mint, vanilla, two apples, guava, and orange with mint flavours.
However, while shopping, we came across the Al Fakher two apples flavor.
The company that manufactures Al Fakher is based in Dubai, meaning its products found in Kenya are imported.
Mustafa also advised us on the fast-moving flavours and how to divide the shisha sachets.
Mint flavours are faster-moving and a box retails at Sh3,000. Inside are 10 smaller boxes, with each containing four sachets. Each sachet can serve three to four portions of shisha, costing between Sh2,000 to Sh3,500.
According to Mustafa, before the ban, high-end pubs used to sell up to 200 reusable pots a night, especially when approaching the weekend, and Mustafa says it is gradually picking up, and they can sell between 70 and 100 pots per night.
We also learnt that the hookahs were not stored at the miraa stores, but at a warehouse owned by a business tycoon who imports them from Dubai.
To run a small shisha business, Mustafa advised us, we should buy three medium-size bongs and that would require a down payment before it was delivered. The hookahs were each retailing at Sh6,500.
The tycoon, according to Mustafa, prefers to keep the bongs in his warehouse in Eastleigh to protect small-scale suppliers from being arrested during crackdowns by a multi-agency team in charge of tobacco control.
After showing us where the coal, the mouthpiece and the foil paper are sold wholesale, Mustafa volunteered to show us how to set up shisha for customers and invited our team to one of his shisha joints in Nairobi.
Our reporter tagged along a close friend on a fact-finding mission and it was here that we learnt that you could add any liquid substance to the hookah to replace water.
"My customers prefer when I put whiskey on the hookah instead of water, I also have some who request milk. What this does to them, I do not know," Mustafa added, laughing.
While we were still learning to prepare shisha, two uniformed officers came to the back of the lounge. We were scared, thinking the officers were there to make arrests.
However, to our surprise, the officers went straight to Mustafa, exchanging pleasantries before one of Mustafa's handlers handed them something that we later learned was money.
According to Mustafa, to survive in this business, one needs to “make friends” with uniformed officers in that locality.
This meant that you would give them between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 every day, which to Mustafa is a very small token of appreciation and a sure way to protect his business from random interference from the powers that be.
"If you sort them, you will never be arrested. They will actually protect you by informing you when there is a crackdown in the area," he added.
Just when we thought we were done, Mustafa revealed how to make more money from the shisha sale. "Just lace it with what the customer wants," he said.
Mustafa says heroin, cocaine, kuber, and marijuana/bhang can be added to the shisha.
"We have kuber and bhang available here, but our customers come with their own heroin and cocaine and request the shisha boys to add to their orders. This, however, comes at an extra cost even though it's theirs. If we add the drugs, the price is between Sh3,000 to Sh5,000," Mustafa added.
And as fate would have it, while we were still there, we noticed a white substance being mixed with shisha.
“What is that?” we asked Mustafa. “That must be heroin or cocaine,” he responded.
He added that the order could have come from younger affluent customers who frequent the joint.
Apart from shisha joints, the Nation found several online stores advertising the substance.
Several sites offering shisha and accessories have cropped up online, making it easily accessible to anyone regardless of age.
Moreover, some virtual retailers have disclosed their contacts, physical address and direction, confirming that they are not in any black market, and tracing them is not close to painstaking.
“10 flavour and more @ Sh250 each 2-8 flavors @ Sh300 each and one flavor Sh350. Assorted to your preference," read a post on Instagram on a page selling shisha flavours.
"King size khalid mamoon hookahs available, call or WhatsApp (number withheld) Sh11,500," read another post on Facebook.
"High-quality hookah double hose luxury hookah set portable shisha with accessories," said an advert on an Instagram page selling hookahs.
Hookah is also openly sold on Kilimall international, an online retailer, but the hookahs are shipped in from overseas.
“Shipped from overseas/global. This type indicates that goods are shipped from international sellers' overseas warehouses. Item will be shipped across the border by air. This means shipping takes longer than the other two models, usually 14-33 working days,” read a note on the website explaining shipment from overseas.
On May 19, we ordered a hookah for Sh4,418.
The package arrived at Nation Centre on June 7, some 20 days after our order.
The big question is how the package was cleared at the port of entry, yet it's indicated on Kilimall that it is a “Hookah Shisha Pipe Set”?
We also tried to have the shisha tested by government and private chemists, but our request was rejected.
"Powerful people operate shisha businesses; we would not want to be involved in this,” said one person at a private chemist.
We were also told to declare our interest in shisha before the samples could be tested.
Research by the World Health Organization estimates that the volume of smoke inhaled in an hour-long shisha session is equivalent to smoking between 100 and 200 cigarettes.
On average, a cigarette smoker inhales half a litre of smoke per cigarette, while a shisha smoker can take in anything from just under a sixth of a litre to a litre of smoke per inhalation.
When burnt, the tobacco, charcoal or coal used produces tar, which is known to have high risks of causing cancer of the lungs, tongue, pancreas, trachea, bronchus, intestine, kidney, colon, rectum, mouth, lips and throat, besides increasing the risk of heart disease.
On average, smokers lose 15 years of life, according to statistics from Nacada.
Smoking shisha, like smoking cigarettes, causes low sperm count, with men who smoke ending up having weak or no erections. It also leads to impotence at a young age and infertility in women, and contributes to premature ageing.
Sharing shisha mouthpieces also poses health risks as a smoker can easily transmit a disease to his or her colleagues.
At high-end clubs, a reveller gets their own shisha mouthpieces but as they become drunk, few or none remember to change the mouthpiece every time the shisha pot goes round.
Tobacco kills one out of two long-term users, or one person every six seconds globally. And as Kenya’s economy grows, with more people having disposable income to spend on luxuries like shisha and cigars, more Kenyans are likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses.
About 2.5 million Kenyan adults use tobacco (smoking and/or smokeless tobacco), according to the 2014 Global Adult Tobacco Survey-Kenya.
Most current tobacco users started smoking between the ages of 20 and 24, while others were initiated between the ages of 17 and 19. But these figures could be higher as more teenagers take up shisha and cigar smoking.