Coffee and incense: Sensewalking in Ethiopia

“It was like Serbia”, I told my friend. And it was. I talked about how things went slower than what I am used to in western Europe and how open and welcoming the people were. It was indeed very similar to what I experienced on the Balkans, “plus the scent of coffee and incense in the air”. I said it with a smile on my face but there was truth to it. The smell of buna and etan, coffee and incense, is something that brings back memories of my fieldwork. I noticed that smell and sound can, in a way, define the cityscape even more than architecture and urban planning.

I did fieldwork in Hawassa, Ethiopia to do research on religion and ethnicity. And on the back of my notebook, I listed some overall impressions of the city and its atmosphere, including what Maria El Halou calls the “neuro-architecture” of the city. Smells and long term memory are closely related (Quercia 2015: 2), yet when we talk about our experience in a foreign country or city, we rarely mention smells. Maybe it is so present that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. Or we simply forgot how to talk about smell. Humans can detect up to 1 trillion different smells, but when we talk about scent, it seems that our vocabulary is not suited for describing it accurately. Our vocabulary is shaped by the topics we talk about and – at least in the languages i speak – there seems to be a lack of expressions to describing smells effectively.

There is a niche for that though. Marketing and anthropology already work together in that field. But research on senses are conducted mainly on visuals (“bias against sight”, Arantes 2014: 27) and – looking at the perfume industry – mostly concerned with creating positive smells or avoiding bad ones instead of understanding the nature of smell in itself (Moeran 2017).

I put together my fieldnotes, enriched with some ethnographic inputs i got from people better versed in urban anthropology than I am, just to give this topic some kind of conclusion. And who knows, maybe this will inspire a young researcher who is trying to find their space in anthropology.



    • Arantes, Lydia Maria (2014): “Kulturanthropologie und Wahrnehmung. Zur Sinnlichkeit in Feld und Forschung”. In: Arantes, Lydia Maria and Elisa Rieger (eds.): Ethnographien der Sinne. Wahrnehmung und Methode in empirisch-kulturwissenschaftlichen Forschungen. Bielefeld: Transcript, 23-38.
    • El Helou, Maria A. (2018):  Urban smellscape. The pheromones of a city and the sense of place. (
    • Moeran, Brian (2007): Marketing scents and the anthropology of smell. Social Anthropology 15 (2): 153-168.
    • Quercia, Daniele (2016): The emotional and chromatic layers of urban smell. (
    • Quercia, Daniele, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, and Kate McLean  (2015): Smelly maps. The digital life of urban smellscapes.  (