House of Gozdawa’s Central African Journey of Scent
Agata Karolina, African Nose & Director of House of Gozdawa Perfumery, pens her extraordinary journey to Chad to craft a new scent
In February of 2019, Agata Karolina, African Nose & Director of House of Gozdawa Perfumery, embarked on a journey into Central Africa in search of the scent of the region for a client wanting to capture the uniqueness of Central Africa. As a Nose, a professional smeller and creator of perfume, Agata specialises in creating scents with ingredients are sourced from, and embody the continent.
‘What exactly I was looking for, I had no idea, but what I did know was that I would smell it before I saw it,’ she explains. In this journal entry penned for House and Leisure from her trip, Agata explains the journey to making this new scent, capturing the adventure of a lifetime from her unique perspective.
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Agata Karolina’s Central African Journey of Scent
On my flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to N'djamena, Chad, I exchanged stories with a missionary from Minnesota, USA, who had lived in Chad for over 35 years. She shared with me culinary secrets of nomadic kitchens, blends of Millet and spices, dried meat varieties, flavours of freshwater fish cooked in broth, mutton cuts and obscure stews prepared with a smoked pepper pod of a particular scent. I walk out of the airport where the air is hot and sweet and intense wafts of perfumes mingle with the city’s scent as the mixture informs my senses.
The grass is always greener...
Beside me stands a tall and regal man dressed head to toe in a linen uniform, he is backdropped against a white bougainvillaea on the viewing deck wall, and across the river lies Cameroon. Below on the river bank military men with firearms wait for their lunches, overlooking fishermen hauling their catch in return for access to the water and just meters away across the river; children, cows, goats, and more fishermen utilise the water together. The smells of cattle and humidity drift over, met by the sweet scent of ylang-ylang and jasmine flowers from the garden behind me, a mix of foreign and familiar in one breath.
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The women sit leisurely on the carpet in the living room. A parade of trays filled with perfumed woods soaking in large jars of scented oils are brought out, an Arabian incense called Bakhoor. Some jars contain spices, others wood chips, all covered in various scented liquids. The final product, embalmed in a sugary coating, is burnt over coals releasing a deeply scented smoke that takes hold of the air around us. Khamissa, my client, has brought me to her cousin to show me each step in preparing Bakhoor; a process I’d been yearning to learn. After we burn pieces her mother teaches me how to perfume myself with the smoke, leaving dreams clinging to my clothing and hair.
Grand Marché Souk
I hustle through a tight maze of tiny passages until we come out to a man hunched over a floor mat, beating wood into chips, preparing it to be sold by the gram for making Bakhoor. Beside him the stand overflows with bags of dry ingredients, the walls behind the owner are covered from top to bottom in aluminium fragrance bottles, each a different scent, some pre-blended perfume bearing familiar names, others with names such as Egyptian White Oud. Knock-offs and authentic oils stand side-by-side, some from France and the United Arab Emirates, natural and synthetic alike.
While standing there, out comes bags of solid Sandalwood of varying quality and price, next to small shells from molluscs, Onycha, used in Ancient Egypt to collect Labdanum, the extract of these is known for its strong fixative qualities. Its smell is sweet-salty perfumed sea air. Already overwhelmed, in the last moment I spot some bags thrown in the corner of white roots, holding my breath, I ask Khamissa if she could request the bag from the seller, and ask what the roots are. The bag arrives, and my presumptions were correct, Orris Rhizome (Iris Roots) — one of the most coveted and precious materials. The butter extracted from the root smells of an Iris in bloom, a scent that feels on the nose like the cool freshness of spring water, oxygen and sweet floral — but not clammy. The sensation makes me draw each breath a little deeper each time. I leave with 4kg in hand.
2500km in 48hours
Six hours into our journey through the Chadian landscape and I’ve barely breathed a word, head wrapped in a sarong while opera music fills my ears, muffled by the rushing of wind. I only communicate to stop when I see different vegetation so as to jump out to smell and retrieve samples. Early morning rain briefly settles the dust, giving way to cleaner more distinctive scents of vegetation. This is a voyage of seeking what I need by means of the nose. The day’s sunrise is filled with voluptuous, decadent scents, followed by the lightness of day and freshness in dry heat.
I want to grasp the freedom of the ocean; the saltiness of the air, the fresh inhalation you feel when in water. So here I am searching coastlines for a Southern African offering. Perfume, of course, is beyond the bottle. Its essence exists in nature, food, contact with others, the feeling a place brings to you, the feeling on your skin, in your stomach, in your heart. To find the right ingredients to express this notion, the feeling and the scent of freedom need to coincide, I listen with my nose to what is being said in the air. As one would be reminded of childhood memories in the kitchen, the smell of baked goods or the smokiness of newly lit coals, it’s not a single ingredient that brings those memories and emotions back, but rather the combination of varying scents. My job lies in listening to what those are, composing, and bringing it all to life in a bottle that can be coveted and experienced, time and time again.