Pheromones are the lineal ancestors of hormones as EO Wilson says. These chemical signals have several outstanding advantages. Small amounts can produce a signal that lasts for hours. They are energetically cheap to manufacture and can be broadcast quite readily. At one extreme they can cover barely a few millimetres. At the other extreme they can generate an active space of several square kilometres. And as to function, in algae, for example, they can be used by female gametes to attract male gametes much as they do in fungi. In Arthropoda they’re female sex attractants. In insects,male sex attractants and aphrodisiacs exist. In vertebrates, pheromones acts as dominance odours, and territorial & home-range markers. But do pheromones have any role in primates and in particular in human beings?
There is no strong evidence for pheromones in humans. The vomeronasal signal transduction systems are at the very most vestigial in humans. Nonetheless there’s some evidence of pheromone effects during the menstrual cycle where it may be that they act as primers, and in the maternal recognition of a newborn where they probably act as signals and in mood displays as modulators.
Well, that’s the science. It seems that with the development of colour vision in male primates and the visible sign of female oestrus, there was less need for chemical signals and hence the markedly reduced reliance on pheromones, or so it is argued. But, I’m not so sure that pheromones are that vestigial.
I can recall that long trip from Lagos out to the country. We were squeezed close together against the door in the backseat of an old Peugeot 304. And it was not long before the closeness of our bodies, the softness of her thighs against mine, and our breathing called to the deep well of desire and I for one was stirred. But, yet the awakened desire had to be muffled, battened down as we were travelling with other companions and it was not night but broad daylight.
That was when I first noticed the aroma of desire. I have no idea whether other people too know of this odour, this effluence that is at once personal and public. It had a cloying substance to it of musk, of sweat mixed with dampness and dusk. It was revelatory.
Many years before I had witnessed a fight, I had caught just the rarest glimpse of a knife flash in the sunlight, and then as if the bare skin was pulled tight and then sliced, glistening red blood welled up along the slice, beads on a string. But it was the smell of fear, something much like the sea, saline rinsed in sea weed. I have associated this rare smell with fear since then and I can smell it, an effluent from a grown man’s armpits. Sometimes it is rancid and sharp and sometimes sour but with a tang to it.
Well it was much the same, the aroma of desire wafted in the atmosphere, technically speaking, in an active space, but to my surprise the other occupants of the vehicle did not seem to have caught any whiff of how the aroused vitals secreted their inner mysteries, their secrets, broadcasting ardour and lust.
This talk of the past has brought back to mind memories that were until just now deeply buried. I can remember visiting my great grandmother in Isale Eko, within her agbole ile just off Eti Osa. We would park the car and then cross the road away from the canoes bobbing by the lagoon side, where the women had their crayfish stalls and fried crabs were sold. To get to her quarter you crossed over an uncovered gutter. Inside the quarter the residences were built along three sides of the courtyard. My great grandmother must have occupied a single room in this courtyard. I stayed with the Ss once, overnight. It was a single room with the parents’ bed separated off from the living space by a curtain that barely reached to the ground. We, the children slept on the floor together and the parents slept on the double bed of wrought iron. Sometime in the middle of the night, I was woken by the older boy who whispered that we look through a discretely torn hole in the curtain to look at the parents locked in an embrace that alternated between wrestling and rapid breathing and ugly and harsh noises. It was a mystery that only became clear many years later. Did the parents not realise that we were watching in tense silence?
Down the courtyard from my great grandmother’s was my mother’s aunt, aunty Mrs Johnson, or more precisely “anti”. She lived on her own, a frail light skinned woman. Her skin was yellowish and wrinkled, but not exactly. The skin seemed loose and too large for the underlying flesh. But it was her smell that I am always reminded of when I think of her. It is really an indescribable smell of dryness, of dandruff, of something ancient like parchment or the hollowed out earth where the drinking water pitcher was kept. She was my mother’s “anti” in the way that all older women were our aunties and older men were uncles. In the sense that all men, who were older in conversation were referred to as “my father” or “my mother” if female.
The correct use of language has bled my rich and profuse relationships of their vitality and vigour. Where I had innumerable brothers I now have one and my countless sisters and cousins are stripped to manageable single numbers rather than dozens. It is how the European norm of nuclear familyhood has eroded the entanglements of extended and luxurious fecundity, of the Niger Delta turning into the arid spittle like stream of a dried riverbed.
Mrs Johnson’s son, my mother’s cousin worked for the Lagos Municipal Transport Service as a bus inspector. He was always well dressed, when he visited at Xmas, in a suit with a white shirt and tie. He brought my mother two books on consecutive Christmases- both by Alan Paton- Cry The Beloved Country & Too Late the Phalarope– describing the impossible and intolerable situation of Africans in South Africa and one year he brought Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go. He must have been well educated and I mean in the sense of somebody who read widely and knew what to think when few people were aware of anything outside of the Nigerian situation. We lost contact with him when the houses, the land along the lagoon were requisitioned by the government for the development of the second Lagos bridge. The families were moved to brand new flats in Surulere without the courtyard design of their former homes. For the first time the families acquired indoor lavatories instead of having to use potties, etc.
In the same courtyard, across on the far side a young couple with a young daughter moved in. The daughter was reputed to have told her parents as soon as she could talk that she was not their daughter but that she had recently died and that her parents lived in Abeokuta. Apparently she named her presumed parents and their address and when inquiries were made it turned out to be true that such a family existed and her account was corroborated. How strange after all these years to recall this.
Much of my early memories are tied to real places that still exist except for the courtyard just across from Eti Osa. I think perhaps because the real places no longer exist there is a strange feeling of uncertainty about these memories, as if I have just woken up from a dream and that these places are somewhere in my imagination except that memories of smells persist.
Aside from Mr Johnson’s odour, to get to Eti Osa you had to go across Carter Bridge from Ebute Meta to Lagos island. You turned left at the statue to the unknown soldiers, Soja Idumota. Here the characteristic smell of old Lagos clung to the nostril. This was where the night soil men dumped their ware after midnight or before dawn. The stench was of faeces mixed with the sea like marinaded compost. This smell was nicknamed “Sasarabia”.
To return to that trip. It was the first time that a thigh acquired a new value simply for being female. Even now at my age I am still mystified by the ability of a body part to acquire a heightened value and to provoke interest and desire for being female. But the aroma of desire has long ceased to be something that I consciously detect. Maybe age atrophies this sense just as it does hearing and sight. Maybe too, pheromones act at subtle levels of discrimination directing and limiting, ensnaring and sometimes provoking. Or, it might just be that I am past that age where nature cares much for my desires.
Photos by Jan Oyebode