Smells, the Suburbs, and the Slums

A certain processed biscuit company has used the connection between smell and memory to its advantage with ad campaigns about how the smell of their oven-baked biscuits will instantly transport any family member “home.” That little dough-made mascot is cute if not entirely honest.

But smell and home are intricately connected, not just by biscuits but by fireplaces, floorboards and even the smell of other people.

Here are a few common Western home-scents. Feel free to add your own to the list in the comments section:

Hairspray or gel, especially in the morning, and especially if there are teenagers around
Kitty litter
That weird vacuum smell, or is it just me who notices that?
Wet dog (common in our home)
Swimming pool water
_____________ ?

For most of the world, though, these scents are as far from home as a cruise vacation or all-you-care-to-eat buffet.

For homeless people, offensive smells like trash, old food, and body odor are common impositions, and they can sometimes serve as temptation, such as the smell of alcohol on a friend’s breath.

And for the 1 billion people living in slums today, those same bad scents have become a generational way of life.

Even books and films like Slumdog Millionaire that show slum life in all its horror can’t portray to the rest of the world the smells of these places, which are characterized by poverty, decay, crime, malnutrition, and disease. The scent of home for such tenants connects to memory in ways that lead to haunted sleep and suicide.

One visitor to the Dhaka slum in Bangladesh described his first impression this way:

“It’s the appalling smell that hits you first: a cloying mix of decomposing refuse, sweat, wood smoke and the sharp ammonia smell of urine.”

And from a visitor to the Nairobi slums:

The smell in the slums is something to behold. There is the obvious human sewage. Residents deposit their waste into plastic bags when they can, and throw them either into the ditch in the alley or the ink-black Nairobi River which runs through the middle of the slum. The bags have earned the nickname of “flying toilets”. There [is] every form of farm animal in the slum from chickens, pigs, goats, to cows along with their droppings. The most overwhelming smell that emanates from the slum though, is that of burning wood charcoal. This is the way that all cook their meals along the alley-ways.  The consolation is that it disguises the other more offensive smells.

And one last observation, from an Australian in India, studying outside a nearby slum and writing about what the students there began to refer to as “The Smell”:

Here and there in the slums, some of the residents have devised a system of “hanging latrines” – precarious bamboo platforms raised a few feet above the ground, or water, and screened with rags. In the rainy season, the sluggish water rises above the tops of the stilts supporting some huts, flooding the floors and tiny alleyways with dead vermin, human feces and other refuse.

Home sweet home.

So what can we do?  How can this relate to our own experience of home, except to make us feel guilty?

I’ll throw out one idea, and then leave the comments box open for more.

What if we used the money we normally put into scented plug-ins, candles, and air freshening sprays into programs that benefit the families living in slums? Even if it was just for one month, for some of us that money adds up.

Since my husband and I don’t use a lot of air fresheners, we could use cheaper soap or bake less goodies, even if just for a short time, and donate the small proceeds instead.

What do you think? Is that going too far? What else could we do to relate with and care for people who smell only nasty things every day?

Also, what are some ways in which we can improve the quality of scent for homeless and impoverished people in our own communities?

Further resources:

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) works extensively within slums and refugee camps all over the world. Learn more about their work or make a donation.

4 Responses to “Smells, the Suburbs, and the Slums”
  1. Darrell says:

    I remember many pleasant smells from my home growing up but I remember the barnyard smells the most. The barnyard is living to a farmer and those smells are the most pleasant because they represent his food and his living.
    Incidentally, I do not feel guilty about the slums. I’ve seen a lot of them all over the world and I’ve seen a lot of misery and suffering. Most of these things are brought about by long term government policy (see R.J. Rummel’s Death By Government). These things make me feel sympathy and sadness for the human condition. I do not feel guilty because I have the economic ability, currently, to buy air freashener,and the other things I use. Through the sale of such products comes economic activity. If each of the third world slums mentioned had a large air freasherner factory perhaps those people would have jobs to buy food from the fruits of their own labor.

  2. Joanna says:

    And hopefully this post doesn’t come across as though we should feel guilty. But some people will feel guilty at first, as I certainly do when I let myself look at other people’s misery, which I prefer not to do in most cases. I begin to feel guilty for my own self-absorption, complaining spirit, and for assuming I deserve what I have.

    As I move from that guilt into a healthier state, say of conviction, I usually also choose to become more generous. Not out of guilt, but out of conviction and love.

  3. Michael says:

    Smells capture the feel of a place so well and I wonder how much of our impression of places that we might see on television or in movies is limited simply because we cannot smell them.

    This reminds me of a story that Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission says in his book “The Good News about Injustice”. He says he was once at a conference where the speaker asked everyone to imagine the disciples surrounding Jesus just as he began to multiply the loaves and fishes. But instead of distributing them to the masses the disciples begin thanking him in awe and wonder as they watch the bread and fish pile up.

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