When most of us think about smoking, several health alarm bells sound off. During the late 90s, there was a massive effort to speak about the dangerous effects of smoking. But as a traditional health practice centered in ancient African culture, smoke has a place that is still being celebrated in modern society. Dukhan is not about inhaling smoke but using fragrant smoke to elicit specific health-boosting benefits.
In the East African country of Sudan, dukhan is a cherished cultural practice that women engage in regularly. Dukhan means “smoke” in Arabic, and the method refers to the art of using aromatic woods, chips, sugars and resins to create deeply indulgent fragrances. Acacia wood and frankincense are the most common natural substances used for this practice. When visiting Sudan, you can find shops and stalls that sell various items that can be mixed and matched for personal taste.
This Sudanese ritual of dukhan has been passed down from generation to generation over centuries; it holds significant spiritual and medicinal significance.
Although native to Sudan, it is also commonly practiced in neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Somalia. This smoke is said to purify the body, ward off the evil eye, and promote relaxation and well-being. The aromatic woods also darken the body’s skin (primarily arms and legs) to a desired hue. Dukhan can also temporarily tighten the vulva area and is also said to have fertility-boosting benefits. The woods chosen are selected for medicinal uses, and some women even add special herbs to the fire to boost the health properties of the smoke. The ritual is often performed before special occasions, especially before weddings. Soon-to-be brides usually take smoke baths under the watchful eye of a community auntie regularly in the days leading up to her wedding. Married women also engage in a weekly smoke bath for relaxation and purification.
The process involves hot charcoal placed in a fire-proof clay vessel in an underground pit. The scented wood/resin mixture is placed on top of the coals, creating a plume of smoke. “The first time I did it, I was surprised at how much smoke there was. I was a little nervous at first”, says Zaynab, a Sudanese-American woman who went through the dukhan ritual in preparation for her marriage. “But I relaxed once she covered me and tied my hair up. The smoke felt so healing. It was nice. I want to do it again.”
Zaynab was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to the United States as an elementary school student outside Washington, D.C. Although she didn’t grow up with the practice, she wanted to ensure that she included this deeply traditional health ritual in her marriage preparations.
The smoke is kept inside through layered heavy clothes draped around the woman, covering the entire body except the head and neck. The hair is often tied up with a fabric or a loose top knot. A woman may sit atop the smoke for as little as 10 minutes, while more experienced women can sit for up to an hour. The woman overseeing the ritual keeps the smoke flowing through constant tending. It is a beautiful and calm environment meant to not only deliver health benefits but provide a space of peace for women.
Beyond its sensory allure, Sudanese dukhan possesses more profound significance. The practice holds spiritual value, believed to cleanse and purify spaces of negative energies. It is also traditionally known to carry medicinal attributes, with certain herbs believed to have therapeutic properties, promoting well-being and healing.
Sudanese dukhan represents more than just a fragrant smoke; it’s a cultural emblem that bridges generations preserves heritage, and fosters connections. This ancient practice continues to symbolize the enduring link between tradition and modernity in a world of rapid change.
Words by Kaba Abdul-Fattaah