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A scent leaf plant. (Scamperdale/Flickr; The Xylom Illustration)

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Perspective: For This Desire, I Choose The Sun

Understand me / when I say I burn best / when crowned / with your scent: that earth - sweat / & Old Spice I seek out each night / the days refuse me. /

— Ocean Vuong

The scent leaf is called Nchuanwu in the central Igbo language. Nchu-, which means to chase, and -anwu, which means two vastly different things depending on who you ask or what they hear first. 

Every Igbo person I have asked in my circle seems conflicted by it. We argue for minutes and conclude that Nchuanwu’s translation is open-ended and dependent on how it is pronounced or written. After all, it is ‘Nchuanwu,’ that is mostly written in textbooks and on the internet with no tonal marks whatsoever. 



With the pronunciations due to the tonal marks, ánwụ̄ means sun, and ánwụ́ means mosquito. Depending on the direction of your research you will find supporting postulations for both sun and mosquitoes, mostly mosquitoes because Nchuanwu is widely known to reduce the population of insects in living spaces. But it is also a plant that grows up to five feet and requires full sun to germinate. 

And so I choose the sun. 

In my parents' home, Nchuanwu is not a leaf we buy in the market, we grow it in our backyards. Because it is a staple in our kitchen it was one of the very first we planted when we built and moved into our own house. 

Nchuanwu is so versatile it is easy to rediscover it. It went from being the leaf we used for pepper soup, a leaf that elevated the taste of porridge, made oil rice smell and taste like heaven, and was cooked and drank by my parents because they considered it medicinal to being the leaf we added to everything, Indomie, pasta, and beverages because it gave it more flavor.

When there were no leaves on the branches of our Nchuanwu shrub, we simply went to a neighbor's yard and plucked some. In the early mornings or evenings when whatever food my aunt was making was already on fire, she sent me to go and get Nchuanwu from our neighbors. 

The optimal period for gathering Nchuanwu is during the early morning before the sun rises. After sunrise, a significant portion of the volatile essential oils is likely to have dissipated into the atmosphere, but this was not the reason my aunt sent me to get Nchuanwu when the sun was not out. She just sent me. But I will argue that with the way she smiled whenever she sent me,  she knew she was giving me the opportunity to meet our neighbor’s son; this tall dark, deliriously handsome human who I liked to look at and who loved to look at me. She was giving me time alone with him.



He had everything growing in his backyard. Peppers. Avocados. Thyme. Bitter leaves. Lemon and curry, to mention just a few. His yard was full of green and too much green planted side by side meant I needed help finding which one was Nchuanwu. Unlike the curry leaf, which boldly announces its presence from a distance, the Scent Leaf reveals its sharp, minty aroma only when you bring it close to your nose. 

I pretended to be so clueless that he indulged me. He held my hand and volunteered to teach me how to identify Nchuanwu in a garden full of leaves, and was so generous with the way he hovered my hands over the leaves, lifted my finger, and made me stroke the blades before plucking them and putting them in the middle of my palm. Nose in palm, I would smell the leaves and show so much excitement you would think I had never smelled Nchuanwu before. 

I think perception is the foreground for flirtation.  Smelling Nchuanwu with him became a ritual my body responded to. I went to his house even when there were leaves on our Nchuanwu shrub. Something about breathing the same air and perceiving the same things was sensual. 

It was in the middle of plucking these leaves that we became what we were; two young adults building up desire and hoping there would be a chance to act on them. As he put his nose on the blade of the Nchuanwu leaves to help me identify them, I reckon that same nose would be great at perceiving my body and sharpening it. 

The buildup of tiny moments is the basis for any kind of innuendo. I had filled my basket with Nchuanwu and was about to leave and he held my face. He massaged my cheeks while telling me that Nchuanwu was not just used for cooking. That the juices extracted from Nchuanwu are beneficial and can cure chest pain. Nchuanwu is known as wild basil in Hawaii, some other regions mistake it for holy basil, but if they were there in the backyard with me when this boy looked into my eyes, held my face, and mentioned juices they would not struggle to make a distinction. If they looked at this sentence again, “juices extracted from Nchuanwu are beneficial and can cure chest pain.” and they replaced Nchuanwu with my name in the sentence, they would realize nothing about Nchuanwu is holy. 

Extractions from Nchuanwu can cause irritation if not handled appropriately. Oils from Nchuanwu are potent and typically extracted through steam distillation. I cannot think of the distillation of steam without thinking about the desperation of both our bodies to do something other than perceive. Steam is often passed through the Nchuanwu plant material, causing the essential oil to evaporate. If he is steam and my body is plant material, then there will be heat in all the places my body produces wetness. 

To lose focus on the occasion of plucking leaves is something that dazzles me about nature. I tell this boy our love story started on the veins of an Nchuanwu leaf and he starts to laugh and ask me not to talk about the appearance of veins. I still don’t understand where his mind went but like many plant leaves, Nchuanwu leaves typically have veins. The veins play a crucial role in transporting water, nutrients, and other essential substances throughout the leaf. I guess if you imagine his body as a vein and mine as a leaf, it would mean that everything we did when no one was looking was a kind of transportation, a moving of body water and substances between our intimate spaces. 

To lose focus on the occasion of plucking leaves is something that dazzles me about nature.

In the making of essential oils from Nchuanwu, the steam and essential oil vapor are condensed back into liquid form, with the essential oil separating from the water. On X there was a foolish argument about what squirting means and this boy showed me the post and asked me about separation in the context of orgasms in a woman’s body; if what was released was something entirely separate from urine and I don’t answer him. 

It was in these moments of talking about and plucking Nchuanwu that I understood that mutual tension was the premise for intense lovemaking. Nchuanwu contains compounds that have the potential to disturb the equilibrium of certain hormones, something about perceiving arouses in you a sense and desire to touch and be touched. 

It’s been years since I plucked Nchuanwu, years since I last saw this body with my two eyes or smelt his very vibrant and woody cologne. Behind texts and phone calls, we realize we are nothing alike, that Nchuanwu was what made us feel compatible in a sense. We realized that beyond the pull scents and fragrances offered, there was nothing strong enough for us to make our experiences tangible, so we kept each other’s numbers and hoped that one day we would meet again and have an experience more spicy than the last. 

We don’t or maybe we will. 

I chose Nchuanwu to mean ‘To chase the sun’. It is more romantic, and more true to me because everything on Earth happens under the sun. 

Nchuanwu expels aromatic compounds when exposed to sunlight, this not only intensifies its fragrance but also creates a pleasant environment; an atmosphere that is good ground for love or lust or both. 

And the truth is that I want both.


 


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Roseline Mgbodichinma Anya Okorie

Roseline Mgbodichinma is a Nigerian poet, writer, and blogger. In 2018, she won the audience's favorite award powered by Union Bank and Okadabooks for her short story, Silence that spoke. Her poem, The Giant, was published in the Poets in Nigeria (PIN) 2019 Anthology, and we were superheroes (another poem) was selected by Theresa Lola, the young people’s laureate for London to be featured in the #SayYourPeace campaign.

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