Shisha smoking: Why is it on the rise?

Shisha is the new chill out fad in town. If you have been to a trendy pub or bar or nightclub or party in Kigali of late, you probably have seen a young man moving briskly among the crowd, swinging a bowl of burning coals.

Shisha is the new chill out fad in town. If you have been to a trendy pub or bar or nightclub or party in Kigali of late, you probably have seen a young man moving briskly among the crowd, swinging a bowl of burning coals.

Some establishments have taken it a notch higher, and you will find the shisha attendants clad in t-shirts branded “Shisha Guy.”

Yet even with shisha seemingly all over the public imagination, the most basic questions still abound about what exactly it is, at least among non-smokers.

Is it good old tobacco laced with sweet aromatic flavours? Is it a drug and can it alter one’s senses? Is it addictive? Some have even asked if it’s marijuana.

For this assignment, I visited a few select venues that I was already aware served shisha.

Of course I knew shisha already and have been to places in Kigali that have been christened “hookah joints”, on account of the reputation they have built serving shisha.

However,a few of the establishments that I called for a comment politely turned me down. Probably it had something to do with recent comments attributed to Local Government Minister Francis Kaboneka, who is reported to have proposed in parliament that government look into the possibility of classifying shisha as a drug.

The first place I called was the Vanity Lounge (former KGL Bar and Restaurant), a known shisha joint, but the proprietor, Bruce Intore, politely asked to be spared the topic.

Next I called Pili Pili in Kibagabaga, another known ‘hookah’ hot spot. The manager asked me to convey my queries by email, which I did but no response was forthcoming, even after numerous text message reminders.

Hookah (pronounced huqqa) is the other name for shisha. It is also the name for the instrument used for vaporising and smoking shisha.

Generally, shisha has been projected in the public imagination as something fashionable, trendy and cool. There used to be a time in the past when cigarette smoking was fashionable, trendy and cool, but that is in the past.

Middle Eastern origins

Commonly associated with Middle Eastern culture, the exact origins of shisha are still a subject of debate, although Persia and Turkey are frequently cited.

It is made up of a water bowl, a flexible hose, and mouthpiece. Live coals are used to burn fruit flavoured tobacco. The tobacco smoke then passes through a water vessel and is inhaled deeply through the hose using a detachable mouthpiece.

At The Manor Hotel in Nyarutarama, the owner, Saeed Alam said, “We don’t condone or condemn shisha smoking,” adding that the hotel runs a small shisha operation “for guests, especially foreign guests that really need it.”

The shisha bongs are tucked away in the hotel’s newly rebranded Billionaires Bar and Nightclub, and smokers have to make use of the rooftop smoking terrace.

“Shisha needs a special smoking room or area so as not to harm passive smokers,” revealed Godfrey Owere from the hotel’s Food and Beverages department.

Haruna Uwihanganye, the hotel manager, revealed that to ensure consistency in quality, the hotel imports its shisha from the UK as opposed to buying from local dealers. A shisha session costs Rwf 6,000 at this venue.

Next I visited Chillax Lounge at Century Park Hotel and Residences in Nyarutarama.

“We have not gone out of our way to brand Chillax as a shisha place but it’s there whenever a client needs it,” remarked the manager, Ronald Obala. Here, a shisha session goes for Rwf 5,000, which is the standard fee at most shisha joints in Kigali.

Obala, however, disclosed that the lounge is big on shisha when there are special events and parties. On such occasions, Obala revealed that the lounge outsources shisha bongs from private dealers to boost their limited supply. On the Tuesday afternoon when I visited, there were no shisha bongs on site.

Later that evening, I checked out the Papyrus Bar and Restaurant, located in the middle of Kimihurura, Kigali’s bar and nightclub district.

Inside, there was a large dining group composed of what seemed like a foreign business delegation with their Rwandan counterparts. A few shisha bongs could be seen near the bar area.

I took up seating at the balcony and immediately spotted a group of four Middle Eastern looking men in a quiet, almost ritualistic shisha session.

Inside, in the comfy sofa lounge by the bar, a “shisha guy” was attending to a lone smoker.

The manager, Melanie Cordero, revealed that shisha is a low key affair at Papyrus, and that the shisha crowds usually sit out by the balcony.

“But come weekends when this place transforms into a dance floor, the shisha crowd moves inside,” Cordero admitted.

I asked Cordero if she thought there was a possibility government would one day move to ban shisha. Her response was brutal.

“I think the problem is the shisha that is from Nyamirambo which sometimes they mix with drugs like marijuana. Otherwise there is no reason why genuine shisha should be banned from use,” she said.

My last stop was the Fuchsia Lounge Bar in Remera. Earlier on phone, the manager, Brigitte Kanyange had told me to talk to a guy called Fabrice, the “shisha guy.” A live band was playing when I checked in.

Fuchsia is big on shisha and this was very evident from the two shisha smoking groups that conspicuously took up the two tables by the entrance. On both tables, it was young urbanite and corporate class Rwandan men and women blowing plumes of shisha smoke.

Past the bar counter, there was more outdoor seating and here, it was three tables in a row, all with classy looking young Rwandans huddled around shisha bongs. Very classy English and French emanated from their animated chatter.

How unsafe is it?

Research done by World Health Organisation shows that cigarette smokers generally inhale 8 to 12 puffs over 5 to 7 minutes, whereas a shisha session lasts 20 to 80 minutes and involves 50 to 200 puffs. Therefore, in one shisha session, a smoker can inhale the same amount of smoke that would be inhaled by smoking 100 cigarettes.

Dr Wilbur Bushara, a medic at Herna medical care, says just like cigarette smoking, shisha smoking is associated with a unique set of health risks.

He explains that shisha smoking is associated with a number of health risks since it exposes the smoker to more smoke over a prolonged period of time.

“Shisha smoke contains harmful toxins that can be a cause for respiratory illnesses, such as lung cancer. The charcoal used to heat tobacco increases the health risks by producing smoke that contains high levels of carbon monoxide and cancer-causing chemicals,” he says.

He also adds that one can get heart disease and for expecting mothers, it can be a cause of increased respiratory problems in new-borns and low birth weight.

Just like with cigarette smoking, shisha not only causes harm to the smoker but to others as well.

“Passive smoke from shisha contains tobacco smoke; this exposes non-smokers to the same toxic compounds that smokers are exposed too,” the doctor says.

Additional information by Donah Mbabazi.



Shisha is considered a fast growing fad among different age brackets today all over the globe. The first invitation to try smoking a Shisha could have many reasons, why people agree to have this new experience.

One of the popular reasons why people try to smoke Shisha is because, they are curious as to how Shisha differs from smoking a cigarette. A Shisha user can also have a different excuse as to why they are tempted to smoke Shisha. It could be they thought that the water in Shisha pipe filter the toxins in the tobacco; or they thought that since the Shisha tobacco has sweet fruit flavour it is more healthy to smoke than using a cigarette.

Shisha Tobacco

Myth: Herbal Shisha is healthier than regular Shisha.
Actual fact: Just like smoking herbal or “natural” cigarettes, herbal Shisha exposes the smoker to tar and carcinogens.

Myth: Shisha is mostly molasses and not so much tobacco, so it is not so harmful.
Actual Fact: Fruity flavours tend to mask the toxins present in Shisha. People are more likely to use it in excess amounts thinking they are only inhaling fruity flavours.

Shisha Addiction

Myth: Smoking Shisha is not as addictive as smoking a cigarette because there is no nicotine.
Actual Fact: Just like regular tobacco, Shisha contains nicotine. In fact, in a 60-minute Shisha session, smokers are exposed to 100 to 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette.

Nicotine in Shisha

Myth: Smoking Shisha produces less nicotine than regular cigarettes.
Actual Fact: Smoking Shisha and cigarettes produces nicotine that has approximately the same levels. Possibly when there is a difference, this will depend on Shisha tobacco, and usually Shisha users only use the best tobacco with greater nicotine levels.

Shisha Smoke

Myth: Inhaling Shisha smoke does not burn the lungs, so it is healthy.
Actual Fact: The Shisha smoke does not burn the lungs when inhaled because is cooled through the water in the base of the Shisha pipe. But even though the smoke is cooled, it still contains carcinogens and it is still unhealthy.

Myth: Smoking Shisha is healthier than smoking cigarettes.
Actual Facts: Shisha smoke is just as dangerous as cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke is generated by burning tobacco, while Shisha smoke is produced by heating tobacco in a bowl using charcoal. The end product of both cigarette and Shisha is the same—a smoke, containing carcinogens.

Water in Shisha Pipe

Myth: The water used in smoking Shisha is an effective filter against carcinogens.
Actual Fact: Depending on various factors such as duration of smoking, depth, length and frequency of inhalation; higher levels of carcinogens may be present in Shisha smoke compared to cigarette smoke. Aerosol, tar and heavy metal particles also are found in Shisha smoke.

Shisha Health Problems

Myth: Smoking Shisha is associated with fewer long-term health problems than cigarettes.
Actual Fact: Smoking Shisha can lead to various cancers, as well as heart and lung disease, much like cigarette smoking. In addition, diseases, such as hepatitis, herpes and tuberculosis, can spread when Shisha hose mouthpieces are shared.