Desert Flower

From the book by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller

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.

Solitary Trek

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 guide them.

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 up again. 

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 laugh.

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

In a 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 infibulation.

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 market.

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 after her.

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 strictly business.

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 teeth.

"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 die.

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 permission.

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.


Welcome Surgery


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 Mohammed.

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 afternoon."

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 possible."

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 doing this?"


"The first thing I'd do is discuss it with them."

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 worldwide.

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


If you suspect

site map


Resource materials

Copyright © 2017 Dennice A. D. I. Goudie. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

© 2017
DADIG As the site administrator, DADIG, is solely responsible for the opinions expressed. I do my utmost to ensure that all news reports are verbatim with indicators as to where the quotes can be found online.


To navigate "click", hold, scroll and release

Socially Skilled Child Molester - excerpts


History of Child Abuse

CSA Legislation 1900-2000

Registered sex offender & Travel