Uunsi not only connects me to my family but to the greater Somali diaspora

By Hibaq Farah 


Some of my earliest and sweetest memories involve sitting on the sofa in my best outfit, alongside my siblings in a tidy living room, uunsi burning in the background, waiting for our guests to arrive. When uunsi burned it was a warning of sorts: The meal was made, the guests were on their way, the day had begun, and, sometimes, mamo was going to a wedding.

Uunsi, the Somali word for frankincense, is largely sourced from Boswellia trees from Somaliland, where I am from, and is one of its most important natural resources. Uunsi is often burned in a dabqaad, a burner pot that is usually made of white clay. Traditionally, uunsi is used after meals, in the evening, or during special occasions, with different types of bukhoor being used. According to the elder Somali community, uunsi is used to lift your spirits and make the house smell clean with its powerful scent that lingers for hours.

Uunsi is commonly used in Somali households across the globe and is one of the connecting daily routines for the wider Somali diaspora. Growing up, I never quite knew where my mum would buy it—it would just appear in our house and when it ran out, it would reappear. Now, my mum and I often jokingly bicker about hiding our fancy bukhoors from each other. During self-care days, you might see me use uunsi a questionable number of times. Uunsi has always been something that eases my mind, and during the pandemic, small joys have felt more precious than ever.

The smell of uunsi holds a special kind of nostalgia, one that immediately transports me to our childhood home. All the joys, memories, and moments come alive with just a scent—reminding me of all the lives I’ve lived. I vividly recall giggling with my cousins as we tried to desperately explain the smell of one another’s houses, we’d never find the right words to use.

Slowly, what was once a small and insignificant moment in my day has transformed into a defining one. In the midst of excessive Zoom meetings and make-shift office spaces, uunsi breaks up my day. It’s a nudge to say the working day is over and I must physically remove myself from my desk and begin my evening rituals. From putting it under my diraac-shiid (traditional Somali dress worn around the house) before bed so I wake up smelling like uunsi, to burning it after cooking meals, it helps me unwind. As an adult now, the message I get from uunsi feels different and more simple: In the morning, it is time to work, and in the evening, it is time to switch off.

Our pull toward certain scents often feels intimate, like a secret between you and your memories. Maybe it’s the cologne your dad wore on a family trip or the roll-on perfume you used at your first grown-up job. That familiarity offers a sense of safety, even if it is fleeting. Whether I am at a friend’s house or walking past a Somali aunty, that smell, the one I know so well, offers me a particular form of comfort. Uunsi feels like home, wherever I go.

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