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Sniffing oriental aromatic scents: The perfumery trope in eroticized Swahili odes

Tom Olali
Ahmad Kipacha


Swahili poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have foregrounded adapted perfumery customs with great reverence in their works. It functions as a vital cue to trans-Indian Ocean commonalities and as a marker of the influence of Arabian-Manga civilisation and perfumery practices on the Swahili customs. This paper examines the culture of scent in selected poetic works attributed to Fumo Liyongo and Mwana Kupona Mshamu. Interestingly, the geography of the female body parts is fused with oriental scents to excite consensual romantic intimacy. We argue, besides historically echoing the sensuousness of oriental perfumery in Swahili culture, that these two poets subliminally de-odorise body, mind and soul of their readers to experience imagery of passionate intimacy.  Specifically, this article intends to focus on two prominent motifs of crosscultural adornment: the use of Manga attar unguent, fragrance and perfume, and the scenting of genitalia. The article confronts these postulations concretised on an approach based on Georges Bataille’s theory of eroticism. According to Carl Olson, Bataille was an influential French postmodern thinker and writer who argued that human life could best be understood by the interconnections and workings of eroticism (1994:231-250). He mixes philosophy and anthropology to talk about eroticism. According to Minguy, Bataille, through erotic transgressions, saw the possibility for true human freedom and communication. This theory, therefore, guides our arguments and counter-arguments, in the present article. It is the fulcrum upon which our discussions are premised.

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eISSN: 0023-1886