Rwanda Focus (Kigali)

3 December 2012

Rwanda: Can Women Smoke Openly?

Three months ago, Joel met Cynthia, the woman of his life, or so he thought. The boys he used to hang out with started seeing less of him as he dedicated more time to his sweetheart.

Until recently, when suddenly his buddies received a text message asking them to be at the bar early because he had a pressing matter to discuss. When they had gathered, Joel called for attention and said with a grave expression: "Guys, I have a serious problem and I need your advice."

Then he fell silent again. "Did you get her pregnant?" one of his mates finally asked.

"No. I just found out she smokes," was the terse reply.

There was brief silence and bemused looks around the table. "Is that it?" one of the friends asked incredulously. "Seriously, I thought you were in serious trouble because you look as if you have just seen a ghost!"

"Personally I have no problem with that, many girls smoke these days," said Mark. "If you love her you can just put up with it, nobody's perfect."

Jerome agreed. "I smoke and my girl doesn't, she doesn't even drink, but she never makes a scene over it," he said.

But for Joel, it was a big deal, he explained: while Cynthia openly drinks beer, she had never told him that she smokes. He only found out the previous day when he called on her unexpectedly and found her smoking a Dunhill. "She appeared embarrassed but continued to smoke, apparently resigned to the reality that I had busted her," he explained.

In the end, Joel took his friends' advice and went to talk with his girl, who explained that she had started smoking in senior two in secondary school and had picked up the habit from friends.

According to Marcus Mbanda, a former high school teacher, many kids in secondary school smoke; the administration at his former school even knew about it but it was hard to combat as many kids were already addicted even at such a young age. "If a girl is smoking at the age of 22, chances are she didn't start yesterday and is already addicted," he explains.

Mabel Kwikiriza, a 23-year-old smoker, for her part says that it is a lifestyle, albeit with serious health risks. "In Africa, the problem is we suffer from cultural shock; smoking is a lifestyle and women in the West smoke freely, but here we are expected to hide it, why?" she wonders.

Many are of the opinion that in Africa, smoking is seen as mostly un-African for women but widely accepted for men. Not everyone is happy about that. "It's one of those things - women in trousers, women driving bicycles, women in construction; these are new gender debates that Africa needs to learn to accept," says Vivian Ankunda, a social worker, adding that smoking, whether for men or women, should not be accepted because it poses health risk. "We should be helping all smokers to quit, be it female or male."

And the whole notion that it is 'un-African' for women to smoke even seems to be baseless. Marcel, the owner of a small neighborhood boutique who is in his fifties, remembers that when he was a kid, there was always pipe tobacco in the house. "For my father and my mother," he says. "They both loved their pipe."

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