In Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, on a regular Tuesday night, a group of middle-aged adults puff smoke from four pipes, drawing from the same pot.
They are not the only ones doing so and some have to book for their turn. That’s how popular shisha is.
“They don’t allow you to bring your own hookah (or hubbly bubbly), even though they don’t have enough to serve everyone,” said David Ncube, 36, a car salesman.
“This is a great way to unwind after a hard day at work. I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I enjoy this almost daily.”
Next to him is his girlfriend. She asks the barman what flavours they have, and chooses grape.
“I enjoy my shisha with a cocktail. You should try it,” she tells News24.
Most, if not all, nightclubs sell shisha around the country. Some have adopted names that indicate they are “shisha” bars.
In some bars, one cannot smoke cigarettes inside, but there’s no rule governing shisha.
“It sells like regular beers and, for the price we charge, it’s a good business option,” said Emmanuel Ndlovu, a pub manager.
While the exact origins of shisha are hard to locate, it has taken southern Africa by storm.
“The shisha packet costs R100 at the bar and you have to also buy the charcoal at R16 ($1). You use our hubbly bubbly, just like one uses our glasses at the bar. You break, you pay, and a hubbly bubbly costs up to R1 000, depending on the type.
“On the head of the hubbly bubbly, the shisha, which is in most cases flavoured tobacco, is carefully placed and then covered with a foil. On top of the foil, you place the charcoal. After lighting the coal, you can take turns to smoke from different pipes,” added Ndlovu.
In a country with high unemployment, some have taken to shisha as a “side hustle”.
Nomalanga Moyo, a teacher, sells shisha at music shows – and the money is relatively good.
“I order my shisha from South Africa and stockpile. Whenever there’s a music show, I book a stand that deals in shisha exclusively. Some shisha smokers don’t drink alcohol and they find it unnecessary to queue with those buying beer.
“On average, I can make around R5 000 and half of that is profit, just a few ours into a music gig,” she said.
She said at times she gets high on her own supply, but has never smoked a cigarettes in her life. She says smoking cigarettes is a bad habit.
But scientific research has proven that smoking shisha is bad.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health agency of the United States, “smoke from shisha contains carbon monoxide and other toxic agents known to increase the risks for smoking-related cancers, heart disease and lung disease”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a 2015 report, warned that shisha smoking is worse than smoking cigarettes.
“All the studies to date indicate that, during a typical waterpipe use session, the user will draw large doses of toxicants (ranging from less than one to tens of cigarette equivalents). These toxicants have been linked to addiction, heart and lung diseases, and cancer in cigarette smokers and can result in similar outcomes in waterpipe users, if these toxicants are absorbed in the body in appreciable amounts,” says the WHO report.
While there are no laws governing shisha smoking in Zimbabwe, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was flagged as one of the fastest ways of spreading the virus.
Early this week, Cameroon joined Kenya, Gambia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana in banning shisha smoking.
Authorities in Cameroon estimated that 46% of the youth demographic were shisha smokers.
But the idea of banning shisha smoking in Zimbabwe could be a problem.
“I don’t see it happening. It will be chaos,” said Ncube.