The Smell of Africa

lynx_africa_shower_gel_3712So there I was buying shower gel in my new local supermarket in Jerusalem, when my eye was caught by an African scented variety.  I don’t tend to pay much attention to the flavour of my grooming products but on this occasion – already nostalgic for my old home – I thought this was just the thing for me. As I walked home, I began to wonder exactly what it might smell like. These are the scents that I figured must be in it:

  • fume of matatu – visitors from Europe were always amazed that I drove around Nairobi with my windows open in a fug of blue, carcinogenic smoke. Didn’t like to tell them that I feared the windows might fall out if not fully wound down
  • sewage scent – provides a nutty, sweet background note, particularly on a hot day
  • aroma of roasted goat – sweet, meaty and a bit like roasting lamb but with a more sort of agricultural flavour
  • the smell of thunder – the great clouds and downpours of the rainy season were always preceded by that sort of piney smell that means rain is coming and it would be best to get to a makuti-roofed bar from which to watch the thunder and lightning
  • essence of woodsmoke – with the exception of air-conditioned offices, I don’t think I was ever more than 10 yards from a fire

So imagine my disappointment on getting home to discover that my Africa shower gel made me smell of rather exotic musky, spicy vanillas. Rubbish.


4 thoughts on “The Smell of Africa

  1. Have you noticed that almost every country has its own smell? I think you could put me blindfolded in most African countries where I have spent more than a trivial amount of time, and I will be able to tell you where I am just from smell. Of course it also changes with the seasons.

    Anyway, just some additions:
    – Jacaranda (in most Southern African countries)
    – rotting vegetable waste
    – sand in various varieties (it really has its own range of smells, from faintly metallic, through slightly salty, to a smell that I can only describe as siliconic)
    – ozone (immediately after the thunderstorms)
    – banana (especially in South-West and West Africa)
    – life goat (as opposed to dead, roasted goat) — a very noticeable scent that you don’t easily forget
    – horse, donkey and camel smells (and the smells of their respective types of shit)
    – vomit (especially in hospitals)

    And no, definitely not vanilla. Rubbish indeed.

  2. More scents of Africa. You missed a few.

    The smell of paraffin and coal from lights and cooking in areas. It gets into the clothes and skin of anyone who stays there. without electricity

    The smell of the sea, flowers (jasmine, frangipani and ylang ylang and of biryani cooking on fridays).

    The smell of omena drying. The smell of plastic burning. The smell of Imperial Leather soap.

    The smell of women’s heads when they have been sweating under a weave too long.

    The smell of Omo and of mosquito coils, of wax matches and of crownbird cigarettes.

    The rotten stench of city market. The smell of fresh charnal and of disease.

    The smell of mirrah and tropical fruit flavored gum. The slightly metallic smell of fresh sweat on skin.

    The smell of oudi.

    The smell of alcohol beng made.

    The smell excitement and the smell of fear.

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