From the book by Waris Dirie and
She was a child of the desert, as
tenacious and beautiful as the flowers that bloom there
after a rain. She lived through heat and drought and
deprivation, but her most horrific test came in a brutal
rite of passage.
Now Waris Dirie, one of the fashion
world's most stunning women, details her remarkable
life--from a goatherd's hut in Somalia to the pages of
Vogue. In revealing her painful, intimate secret, this
courageous woman hopes to help put an end to a tradition
that has mutilated too many innocents for too many years.
My family was a tribe of herdsmen in the
Somalian desert. And as a child, the experience nature's
sights, sounds and smells was pure joy. We watched lions
baking in the sun. We ran with giraffes, zebras and foxes.
We chased hyraxes -- rabbit-size animals -- through the
sand. I was so happy.
Gradually the happy times disappeared.
Life became harder. By five I knew what it was to be an
African woman, to live with terrible suffering in a
passive, helpless manner.
Women are the backbone of Africa; they do
most of the work. Yet women are powerless to make
decisions. They have no say, sometimes not even in whom
they will marry.
By the time I was around 13, I'd had my
fill of these traditions. A little girl no more, I was
fast and incredibly fit. Before, I had no choice but to
suffer. Now I was determined that I would run away.
I kept running until the sun set, and the
night was so black I couldn't see. By this time I was
starving and my feet were bleeding. I sat down to
rest and fell asleep under a tree.
In the morning I opened my eyes to the
burning sun. I got up and continued to run. And so it went
for days--days marked by hunger, thirst, fear and pan.
When it grew too dark to see, I would stop. At midday I'd
sit under a tree and take a siesta.
It was during one of these naps that a
slight sound woke me. I opened my eyes and was staring
into the face of a lion. I tried to stand but I hadn't
eaten for days, so my weak legs wobbled and folded beneath
me. I slumped back against the tree that had sheltered me.
My long journey across the desert had come to an end. I
was unafraid, ready to die.
"Come and get me," I said to the
lion. "I'm ready."
The big cat stared at me, and my eyes
locked on his. He licked his lips and paced back and forth
in front of me, elegantly, sensuously. He could crush me
in an instant.
When I realized the lion was not going to
kill me, I knew God had something else planned, some
reason to keep me alive. "What is it?" I asked
as I struggled to my feet. "Direct me."
Child of the Desert
Before I ran away
from home, my life had been built around nature and
family. Like most Somalis, we lived a pastoral life,
raising cattle, sheep and goats. On a daily level, our
camels kept us alive, since the females gave milk to
nourish us and quench our thirst, an enormous asset when
we were far from water. For everyday sustenance, we had
camel's milk for breakfast and again for supper.
In the morning we got up with the sun. Our
first chore was to head out to the pens and milk the
herds. Wherever we went, we cut saplings to make pens for
the animals, to keep them from straying at night.
We raised animals primarily for their milk
and for trade. While still a little girl, I was
responsible for taking herds of about 60 to 70 sheep and
goats into the desert to graze. I would take my long stick
and head off alone with my herd, singing my little song to
No one owns the grazing land in Somalia,
so it was up to me to discover areas with lots of plants.
While the animals grazed, I watched for predators. The
hyenas would sneak up and snatch a lamb or kid that had
wandered off. There were also lions to worry about. They
hunted in prides, but there was only one of me.
Like the rest of my family, I have no idea
how old I am; I can only guess. We lived by the seasons
and the sun, planning our moves around our need for rain,
planning our day around the daylight available.
Our home was a tent-like domed hut from
grass and built on a framework of sticks; it was about two
metres in diameter. When it came time to move, we
dismantled the hut and tied it to the backs of our camels.
Then when we found a spot with water and foliage, we'd set
The hut provided shelter from the midday
sun and storage space for fresh milk. At night we children
slept outside under the stars, cuddled together on a mat.
My father slept off to one side, our guardian.
Papa was very handsome, about six feet
tall, slim and lighter skinned than Mama. My mother was
beautiful. Her face was like a Modigliani sculpture and
her skin was dark and smooth, as if perfectly chiselled
from black marble.
Her demeanour was very calm, very quiet.
But when she started talking, she was hysterically funny,
telling jokes and saying silly little things to make us
She grew up in Mogadishu, where her family
had money and power. My father, on the other hand, had
always roamed the desert. When he asked permission to
marry my mother, my grandmother said, "Absolutely
no." However, when Mama was about 16, she ran away
and married Papa anyway.
My mother affectionately called me
Avdohol, her word for "small mouth." But she
named me Waris, the word we used for the desert flower. In
my country, sometimes it doesn't rain for months. Few
living things can survive. But finally the water pours
down and the brilliant yellow-orange blooms of the desert
flower appear, a miracle of nature.
Becoming a Woman
nomadic culture like the one I was raised in, there is no
place for an unmarried woman, so mothers
feel it's their duty to ensure their daughters have the
best possible opportunity to get a husband.
And since the prevailing wisdom in Somalia
is that there are bad things between a girl's legs, a
woman is considered dirty, oversexed and unmarriageable
unless those parts -- the clitoris, the labia minora and
most of the labia majora -- are removed. Then the wound is
stitched shut, leaving only a small opening and a scar
where the genitals have been -- a practise called
Paying the gypsy woman for this
circumcision is one of the greatest expenses a household
will undergo, but it is considered a good investment.
Without it the daughter will not make it onto the marriage
The actual details of the ritual cutting
are never explained to the girls -- it's a mystery. You
just know that something special is going to happen when
your time comes. As a result, all young girls in Somalia
anxiously await the ceremony that will mark their becoming
a woman. Originally the process occurred when girls
reached puberty, but through time it has been performed on
younger and younger girls.
One evening when I was about five, my
mother said to me: "Your father ran into the gypsy
woman. She should be here any day now."
The night before my circumcision, the
family made a special fuss over me and I got extra food at
dinner. Mama told me not to drink too much water or milk.
I lay awake with excitement, until suddenly she was
standing over me, motioning. The sky was still dark. I
grabbed my little blanket and sleepily stumbled along
We walked into the brush. "We'll wait
over here," Mama said, and we sat on the cold ground.
The day was growing lighter; soon I heard the click-click
of the gypsy woman's sandals. Then, without my seeing her
approach, she was right beside me.
"Sit over there." She motioned
towards a flat rock. There was no conversation. She was
Mama positioned me on the rock. She sat
behind me and pulled my head against her chest, her legs
straddling my body. I circled my arms around her thighs.
She placed a piece of root from an old tree between my
"Bite on this."
I was frozen with fear. "This is
going to hurt!" I mumbled over the root.
Mama whispered: "Try to be a good
girl, baby. Be brave for Mama, and it'll go fast."
I peered between my legs and saw the
gypsy. The old woman looked at me sternly, a dead look in
her eyes, then foraged through an old carpetbag. She
reached inside with her long fingers and fished out a
broken razor blade. I saw dried blood on the jagged edge.
She spit on it and wiped it on her dress. My world went
dark as Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes.
The next thing I felt was my flesh being
cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through
my skin. The feeling was indescribable. I didn't move,
telling myself the more I did, the longer the torture
would take. Unfortunately, my legs began to quiver and
shake uncontrollably of their own accord, and I prayed,
Please, God, let it be over quickly.
Soon it was, because I passed out.
When I woke up, my blindfold was off and I
saw the gypsy woman had piled a stack of thorns from an
acacia tree next to her. She used these to puncture holes
in my skin, then poked a strong white thread through the
holes to sew me up. My legs were completely numb, but the
pain between them was so intense that I wished I would
My memory ends at that instant until I
opened my eyes and the woman was gone. My legs had been
tied together with strips of cloth, binding me from my
angles to my hips so I couldn't move. I turned my head
towards the rock; it was drenched in blood as if an animal
had been slaughtered there. Pieces of my flesh lay on top,
drying in the sun.
Waves of heat beat down on my face until
my mother and older sister, Aman, dragged me into the
shade of a bush while they finished making a shelter for
me. This was the tradition; a little hut was prepared
under a tree, where I would rest and recuperate alone for
the next few weeks.
After hours of waiting, I was dying to
relieve myself. I called my sister, who rolled me over on
my side and scooped out a little hole in the sand. "Go
ahead," she said.
The first drop stung as if my skin were
being eaten by acid. After the gypsy sewed me up, the only
opening left for urine -- and later for menstrual blood -
- was a miniscule hole the diameter of a matchstick.
As the days dragged on I lay in my hut, I
became infected and ran a high fever. I faded in and out
of consciousness. Mama brought me food and water for the
next two weeks.
Lying there alone with my legs still tied,
I could do nothing but wonder: Why? What was it all for?
At that age I didn't understand anything about sex. All I
knew was that I had been butchered with my mother's
I suffered as a result of my circumcision,
but I was lucky. Many girls die from bleeding to death,
shock, infection or tetanus. Considering the conditions in
which the procedure is performed, it's surprising that any
of us survive.
But for all the excitement and success of
my new life, I carried wounds from the old. The tiny hole
the circumciser had left me permitted urine to escape only
one drop at a time. It took me about ten minutes to
urinate. My periods were a nightmare always. I couldn't
function for several days each month; I simply went to bed
and wanted to die so the suffering would stop. The problem
reached a crisis while I was living with my Uncle
Early one morning, carrying the tray from
the kitchen to the dining-room table, I had suddenly
blacked out, and the dishes crashed to the floor. When I
came to, Aunt Maruim said: "We have to take you to
the doctor. I'll make an appointment with my doctor this
I didn't tell the doctor I'd been
circumcised. Since he didn't examine me, he didn't find
out my secret. "THe only thing I can give you is
birth-control pills. That will stop the pain."
I began taking the pills, but they
produced drastic changes in my body that seemed weird and
unnatural. Deciding I'd rather deal with the pain, I
stopped taking the pills. It all came right back again,
fiercer than ever. Later I visited more doctors, but they
too wanted to give me birth-control pills. I realized I
needed to do something else. I said to Auntie, "Maybe
I need to see a special kind of doctor."
She looked at me sharply. "No,"
she said emphatically. "And by the way -- what do you
tell these men?"
"Nothing. That I just want to stop
the pain, that's all." I knew the unspoken message of
her comment: Circumcision is our African custom -- and not
something you discuss with these white men.
I began to understand, however, that this
was exactly what I had to do -- or suffer and live like an
invalid for one third of each month.
When I went to see Dr. Michael Mcrae,* I
said: "There's something I haven't told you. I'm from
Somalia and I..I.."
He didn't even let me finish. "Go get
changed. I want to examine you." He saw the look of
terror on my face. "It's okay."
He called in his nurse to show me where to
change, how to put the gown on, and asked her if there was
someone in the hospital who could speak Somali. But when
she came back, she brought a Somali man. I thought:
Oh, here's rotten luck, to discuss this using a Somali man
to translate! How much worse could it get?
Dr. Macrae said: Explain to her that she's
closed up way too much -- I don't even know how she's made
it this far. We need to operate on her as soon as
I could see the Somali man was not happy.
He glared at the doctor and then said to me: "Well,
if you really want, they can open you up. BUt do you know
this is against your culture? Does your family know you're
"The first thing I'd do is discuss it
I nodded. His was the response of a
typical African man.
Over a year went by before I was able to
have the surgery. I had to overcome some practical
problems and my own last-minute doubts, but Dr. Macrae did
a fine job, I've always been grateful. He told me: "You're
not alone. Women come in with this problem all the time. A
lot of women from the Sudan, Egypt, Somalia. Some of them
are pregnant and terrified. So, without the permission of
their husbands they come to me, and I do my best."
Within three weeks I could sit on the
toilet and -- whoosh! There's no way to explain what a
freedom that was.
After much thought, I realized I needed to
talk about my circumcision. First of all, it bothers me
deeply. Besides the health problems that I still struggle
with, I will never know the pleasures of sex.
I feel incomplete, crippled. And knowing
that there's nothing I can do to change that is the most
hopeless feeling of all.
The second reason is my hope of making
people aware that this practice still occurs today. I've
got to speak not only for me but for the millions of girls
living with it and those dying from it.
FGM is practised predominately in Africa
-- in 28 countries. Now cases have been reported among
girls and women in America and Europe, where there are
large numbers of African immigrants. This practise has
been performed on as many as 130 million girls and women
At least two million girls are at risk
each year of being the next victims -- that's 6,000 a day.
The operations are usually performed in
primitive circumstances by village women using knives,
scissors, even sharp stones. They use no anaesthetic.
The process ranges in severity. The most
minimal damage is cutting away the hood of the clitoris.
At the other end of the spectrum is infibulation, which is
performed on 80 percent of the women in Somalia