[,Desert Flower' and ,Desert Dawn']


The desert

Waris Dirie (Waris: a Somali name that means desert flower) was born in the middle of the desert in Somalia. She was born into a nomad family of a tribe called Darood, that was considered as wealthy. Nevertheless they lived under extremely poor conditions, their lives depending from their livestock and rain.

Her family consisted of her parents, 12 children and there were even other relatives, who travelled with them.

Many of her siblings died because of the rough conditions, illnesses and famine.

Every helping hand in her family was important in order to provide their chance of survival.

They couldn't afford any day-off, because they had to move on to find water for themselves and their camels and goats.

Their livestock gave them everything they needed to survive (milk, meat). Every now and then they'd sell an animal to buy some rice or for great feasts they slaughtered a goat. There were only a few feasts like the beginning of the rainy season (gnu) or weddings.

Birthdays didn't count, because many babies died, so it wasn't worth remembering the exact date of birth if it wasn't granted that the one would survive.

Usually the animals are the most precious thing a clan can obtain. When a girl marries, her family gets some camels (Waris' fiancé offered 5 camels). Camels are the most appreciated animals, because they can live without water for some weeks, carry the clan's belongings and in addition to that they give milk.

Waris was raised in nature and freedom. Soon she learnt to trust her feelings and developed a sense to smell the rain or find her family in the desert. The expert of trusting his feelings was her father, who found them everywhere. Even when he couldn't see anymore.

Soon Waris got chores she had to fulfil every day (tending the goats). She knew nothing else than the desert and her greatest desire was a pair of shoes.

Her sister Aman was Waris' idol. Aman's time to become a woman had come, so Waris was envious and wanted it too. She urged her mother to let her become a woman too.

In Waris' culture having undergone a circumcision is a great event in a girl's life. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to find a husband. ( FGM)

When Waris' sister was circumcised, Waris watched the procedure secretly. What she saw shocked her that much that she didn't want to undergo this torture too. But soon she forgot, what she had seen. Even the fact that another one of her sisters never came home after her female genital mutilation (FGM), didn't come to her mind anymore.

Then it was her time. She felt proud to join womanhood. A gypsy woman came and they went into the desert, far away from their camp, so that no one could hear her cry. She was positioned on a rock, held by her mother, the gypsy woman took a broken razor blade and Waris' had to experience the dramatic torture. Her world became dark. She didn't move nor cried but suffered the hardest pain in her life until she passed out. [p. 47] The gypsy woman took some thorn from an acacia tree and sew her up. Her legs were bound together and remained that way for weeks. It took her a long time to recover. Still she was lucky because other girls never recovered from that operation.

Waris father wanted her to get married and presented her an old man, who was supposed to become her husband. Waris was shocked and couldn't imagine to spend her life with this guy. So she made the decision to run away from home (like her sister Aman had done). Her mother knew about her plan. Though she was rather worried and sad about that news, she understood her daughter's reason and helped her.

The escape

Waris had no plan where to go to exactly. She only had the abstract aim to go to Mogadishu to find her wealthy aunt. But since having lived all her life in the desert she hadn't the faintest idea in what direction she should go to find the capital.

She just kept on running until she was so exhausted that she slept under a tree. When she woke up there was a lion right in front of her., but it didn't attack her but went away. From that time on Waris' was convinced that there was a God/Allah and that he didn't want her to die. ( Waris and her relation to God).

Her journey was hard and required a lot of courage. Men wanted to take advantage of her (truck driver, man in Galcaio). But at last she found a relative in Galcaio, where she could stay. But soon she found out that her father was expected to come and take her home. So she fled with the help of her cousins to Mogadishu to her sister Aman.

First she stayed with Aman, but their relationship wasn't that good anymore, so she moved to her aunt, where she worked as maid and baby-sitter.

One day an uncle (the Somali ambassador of London) came to visit her aunt and mentioned that he was looking for a maid. Waris urged her aunt to propose her. Finally he was persuaded and took her to London.


Going to London all alone was a huge step for Waris. Everything appeared strange to her and she wasn't used to the modern western comfort (toilet on the airplane [p.89]). She had never seen any white people before and thought they were sick.

Her aunt in London was a distant woman and not at all as warm-hearted was Waris had expected her to be.

From the first day on Waris was treated like a maid. She had to work 7 days a week and there was no day off. She wasn't allowed to be part of the family so she could never join them watching TV Once she went to school for some times, but then her uncle discovered her secret and forbade it.  So Waris could neither read nor write and had no access to the English language.

Her only friend was Basma (her cousin), who worked as adviser when Basma's brother came Waris too close (she hit him with the rolling pin)

Sometimes a relative, Iman, would visit them. She was a model and for the first time Waris got to know the term "modelling" and knew that she wanted to become one too.

Once Waris' mother called. This was a great event for her because she hadn't talked to her mother for years. But her mother had bad news. Her sister Aman and her brother Old Man (they called him so because of his white hair and his wisdom) had died. Waris was so desperate that she thought of suicide.

It was her job to bring a little girl from Germany to school. On her way she met a man (photographer) who tried to talk to her, but she didn't understand him. He wanted to talk to her every day, gave her his calling card and finally came to her house only to be chased away by her aunt.

4 years later, when her uncle had to return to Somalia, she refused to join them and remained all alone in London - but her time as a maid was over and she felt completely free.

Reasons why she wanted to stay in London:

Somalis who go to a Western country are expected to come home successfully. She was ashamed because her situation hadn't changed. It was her dream to be able to give money to her mother, but still she had none.

Her inner voice told her (since she had survived facing a lion)that Allah had planned more with her. She knew that going to London was her chance, so she didn't want to leave.

Alone in London

She had no idea where to go, so she decided to go shopping first of all. There she met a Somali girl (Halwu) by chance, who invited her to stay with her in her room. They became close friends and she taught Waris the important things of life. Wit Halwu's help Waris found a job and took English lessons. Accidentally she met the photographer again and still he wanted to talk to her. Taking up all her courage Waris called this man and they arranged a meeting.

This was the beginning of her modelling career. With patience he convinced her that he didn't want to harm her and they took some photos.

Soon Waris heard of a casting to which she was invited. It was for a Pirelli calendar and at first she refused to take-off her shirt but in the end they had persuaded her. (Waris' first model job)

She became famous, worked together with Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer  and became a woman of the world.

Still she had to bother about problems due to her origin:

she had no legal permission to stay in the United Kingdom

she suffered from hard pain caused by her circumcision (mentally and physically)

She tried to solve the first problem by marrying a stranger in order to get a legal passport. But soon the immigration office was sceptical and they forced Waris to leave the country.

In the meantime her husband died and the brother of a friend, Nigel, wanted to help her and married her, but with ulterior motives.

She got her passport and could work abroad. Nigel got obsessed by her and followed her everywhere. Waris was desperate because she wasn't in love with him (marriage of convenience).

New York

She moved to New York, where she got many job engagements.

The BBC wanted to make a documentary of her life including her childhood, with shoots in Africa. They searched for her mother and flew to the Somali border. First her mother didn't seem to show up, but Waris' intuition told her that she was quite near. Then the moment came when she saw her mother again after all these years. ( Waris' relation to her mother)

One day she got to know Dana, a drummer in a club, and fell in love with him. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son (Aleeke).


Once more she went back to Somalia together with her brother Mohammed after she'd broken up with Dana. She stayed there for 10 days and experienced both the glee and peace to be at home, her whole family gathered together, and the gap between the two cultures ( the gap between cultures)

She found everything changed. Her mother lived alone because another woman took the place as her father's wife. Her father was nearly blind (operation in the middle of the bush). However they came all together when she was there (for the first time in their nomad life).

Waris' enjoyed the familiar smells, sights, food but they had to argue a lot because two different views of life crashed together.


For an interview for Marie Claire she unveiled the secret of her circumcision. Suddenly she felt completely weak and embarrassed, but the many positive reactions of people, who offered their support, encouraged her. The UN asked her to become a Special Ambassador fighting against the cruel ritual of female genital mutilation.

She would go to schools, speak in the public and founded an organisation called "desert dawn".

Of course she is afraid to criticise her country/origin and fears that she might be killed.

But still she considers her work for the UN as her destiny and she uses her fame to deal with this serious problem.

This aim and her son are the most precious things in her life.


her mother

She is the person most admired in Waris' life. She taught her strength and to put up with life no matter how rough the conditions are.

She was born into a quite wealthy family in Mogadishu. Her love to Waris' father made her run away from home to live with her husband a nomad life in the desert.

Although she was really hurt, she supported her daughter's idea of running away - maybe because she had run away herself.

She had to suffer a lot in her harsh life (e.g. child death, famine, her husband bringing home another wife, getting shot), but she never complained.

At first, after Waris' return, she was a bit cool and distant but soon they re-established their former close relation.

Waris is convinced that they are kindred spirits. She was the person Waris missed the most all the years she spent abroad. After her relation to Dana broke up, she was famous there was nothing more to gain in her life except for her mother. (reason why she went to Africa)

Of course her mother favoured her circumcision because she didn't know anything else. Otherwise she would have become an outcast in their society and would have never found a husband.

to her father

She described him as a strict man. He treated his children rather severe but loved them.

He was proud to be father of so good-looking children. He'd get many camels for them.

He was quite self-confident and took a new wife though his real love was Waris' mother.

Waris had been different from the other family members ever since. On the one hand her father tried to suppress these rebellions with severe measures, but on the other hand he was proud of her and knew that she was as tough as a boy.

Waris' never forgave him that he wanted her to get married to an old and ugly man.

He is the responsible person for Waris' circumcision but she forgave him, because it is a tradition in her society and every girl has to undergo it. She loved him a lot.

to Somalia

It's her country. She loves it, the smell, the heat, the desert Still she looks critically upon this country. She knows that Somalia is her home and that her roots are there. But I think more important is her family there than the country itself. It has many dark sides (khat, gap between cultures). She hates khat and its effect on the whole country.

She appreciates the comfort and liberal thinking of the industrialised countries. But she's proud that she could spend her childhood as part of pure nature in her native country

Western culture

She can't stand that everyone is busy there, especially in her job. For a long time she refused to carry a watch, because she was used to telling the time by the length of shadows. But more and more she became familiar with technical progress and is now pretty fond of it. She likes the western hygiene and its comfort, but also wants to bring some of her traditions into her new country. (carrying her baby)

Most she appreciates that she is able to raise her son in peace.


She tried to find something noble and good about it so that she might understand the reasons for this torture, but without success.

She can't understand why people would let their children endure this cruel ritual.

Especially in the West it's hard for her to live with this mutilation, because people do not know much about it. She was sewn up so that there remained only a little hole open. It took her about 15 minutes on the toilet and her period became a special torture because the blood was bottled up inside. She had it operated.


She loves her job, but not because of the glamour and fame but because she can try on very expensive clothes, gets to know the world and loves to do some photos. She can't understand models who are too obsessed by becoming famous. She also mentions the dark sides of that business, like frustrating comments or taking advantage of the models.

She feels pity for the future models who loose all their courage because of an unfriendly photographer.


She's convinced that there is some supreme being and, being raised as a Muslim (her mother really prayed 5 times a day) she believes in Allah, who planned her life. In the desert she let Allah guide her and since she found herself facing a lion she has known that Allah is there for her.


the position of women in society in Somalia:

women are the last who eat

they aren't allowed to eat in the same restaurant as men [desert dawn p. 209]

FGM is a method that lets men control their wives

nobody listens to them

a man is allowed to have several wives; a woman is forced to be faithful to her husband

aren't allowed to show skin [p. 190]

peace is not common in 3rd world countries

people do not appreciate inventions of the West (e.g. tooth brush)

different meanings of a family

they didn't understand why Waris wasn't married


Waris tried to live in her own way in the States, but her mother-in-law didn't understand it (e.g. carrying her son, teaching him how to drink[p. 52, 53]

In Muslim countries alcohol is forbidden; they chew khat instead


Is situated on the tip of the Horn of Africa, on the eastern coast of Africa. Neighbour countries are Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. It shares its coastline with the Gulf of Aden to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south.

The origin of the Somalis is uncertain. It's said that they came from Arabia. But it's certain that they came from the northern plains and highlands and made their way to the south (7th-9th centuries) into a region that was once called Puntland (Land of Kings).

During the 7th - 10th centuries Muslim Arabs and Persians established trading centres along the coast and the Arabs introduced Islam to the Somalis.

In the 15th and 16th centuries they joined forces together with the Muslim sultanates to fight against Christian Ethiopia.

In the 19th century Britain, France and Italy began to claim different areas of Somalia and established protectorates to define their Somali possessions. So they divided up the land of the Somali nomads and created a lot of confusion to the Somali clans.

The orders in that country were kept by force.

In 1960 Somali became independent but began a war with Ethiopia 4 years later over an area (Ogaden region), which, Somalis claim, was theirs before the colonial division.

In 1991 the dictator of 22 years, Mohammed Siad Barre, was overthrown by rebels. Afterwards a constant war(for 7 years) between the rivalling clans was fought and many people were killed. 350.000 Somalis found themselves unable to move on and farm; so, many lost their lives by famine and drought. The capital, built by the Italians, was destroyed. Millions more had to flee to neighbouring countries and to the West, seeking safety. There is no order in the country: no police, no schools, not even a government. There are constant tribal wars which make nomad life even harder.

The reconstruction of a united Somalia requires that all the country's fighting clans put down their arms and begin peaceful constructive discussions to solve their problems.

The Somali population of about 8 million are mostly nomads who live in the rural areas herding livestock of sheep, goats, cattle and camels. The rest live and work in the cities(Kismaayo, Hargeisa, Marka and Mogadishu).

There's very little rainfall and sometimes none at all, so drought is a severe factor in Somalia. The land consists of arid plains full of Acacia trees. Nomads have to travel many miles to find food and water in order for their families and animals to survive.

In the southern part of Somalia, because of the 2 biggest rivers (Shabeele and Juba) the soil is pretty fertile and they cultivate corn, millet, citrus fruits, rice, sorghum, beans and bananas.

The country's main exports are livestock, bananas, fish, myrrh, hides and skins. They have also raw materials such as gypsum anhydrite, quartz, piezoquartz, , uranium, iron ore and unconfirmed deposits of gold and oil.

This could provide a better life for the Somalis, but still there's a huge lack of education and the living standard is very poor.


Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the term used to refer to the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia. The most severe form is infibulation, also known as pharaonic circumcision, . 15 % of all mutilations are infibulations. The procedure consists of clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoris), excision (removal of the labia minora) and cutting of the labia majora to create raw surfaces, which are then held together. A small hole is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to escape.

The procedure is carried out at a variety of ages (shortly after birth to some time during the pregnancy). The average age is falling. Often the girls don't know what they have to expect.

Some girls undergo it alone, but it's generally done in groups (of sisters, relatives or neighbours). It's performed in the home of the girl or of some relatives, in a health centre or on a special, traditional place like under a tree or next to a river

Generally it's done by a professional exerciser with no medical training. Rich people can afford a doctor.  Normally an elderly woman with failing eyesight, under poor lighting conditions with the use of a kitchen knife, razor blades, scissors, broken glass, sharp stones carries out the operation.

In some cultures girls are told to sit in cold water before to reduce the bleeding, but commonly no steps are taken to make this torture more bearable.

The legs are bound together for up to 40 days. The girls get pastes out of herbs and natural ingredients or in rare cases antiseptic powder in order to prevent infections

Female Genital Mutilation is ubiquitous in at least 28 countries of Africa.(85% of all genital mutilations are performed in Africa) It is also practised in parts of the Arab Peninsula and in regions of Asia. 6000 girls become victims each day.

Even in the United States 6 circumcisions are performed every day. Girls living in industrialised states are sometimes operated illegally by doctors of their own community. More frequently traditional exercises are brought into the country or the girls are sent abroad to be mutilated.

Physical effects

Pain, shock, haemorrhage, damage to the organs surrounding the clitoris, chronic infections, intermittent bleeding and abscesses.

Urine may be retained and serious infections may develop. There's a tremendously high risk of HIV because they use the same knives for many many girls without sterilisation.

Long-term effects: stones in the bladder and urethra, kidney damage, pelvic infections, infertility, excessive scar tissue and dermoid cysts.

Sexual intercourse can only take place after they are cut open. A study carried out in Sudan claimed that for 15 % of all women a cutting was necessary before their intercourse. Often it's done by their husbands. Since there's a wound the risk of a HIV infection increases even more.

Psychological effect

Anxiety, terror, humiliation. Some experts suggest that the shock and trauma of the operation makes the women appear calmer and more docile, which is considered positive in their societies.

The festivities that are in many cultures carried out because of a girl's circumcision may reduce the trauma triggered by the operation. It makes them feel proud that they are part of womanhood and ready to marry. In countries where only a minority practices this ritual, women feel particularly vulnerable to psychological problems, because they are between the tradition of their community and the social norms of the majority.

In some traditions a ceremony is held, but without the mutilation of the genitals. They hold the knife next to the genitals, cut some pubic hair or do a light scarification. This is followed by festivities and allows the girl to be part of the adulthood without being damaged.

In Eritrea 40% of the population wants the practice to end.

But generally there are no intentions to stop their traditions, because it's a deeply rooted ritual and the society thinks in such a rigid way that every girl that's not mutilated would feel like an outcast and would have no aspects in life.

Why FGM is practised

Cultural identity

Customs and traditions are the most frequently announced reasons. FGM defines who is part of a group or society and is a symbol of becoming part of womanhood.

Many societies can't think of a girl that isn't mutilated. Such girl are generally outsiders or strangers.

Gender identity

A mutilated girl is considered a complete woman and the practice marks the difference of the sex and their future role in life and marriage.

The clitoris and labia are seen as "male parts" of a woman's body and their removal is thought to define the gender absolutely. A non-mutilated woman is teased by her husband or he would never marry her and people say she's "like a man".

control of women's sexuality and reproductive functions

FGM is believed to reduce women's desire for sex and so they reduce at the same time the risk of sex outside the marriage. In the case of infibulation a woman is only opened for her husband and afterwards sewn up again. This legitimates the man to control his wife's sexual intercourse. Unmutilated women are doubted to be faithful.

hygiene, aesthetics and health

Popular terms for mutilation are purification or cleansing. Unmutilated women are regarded as unclean and are forbidden to handle food and water. Unmutilated genitals are considered as ugly. Some groups believe that a woman's clitoris is dangerous and that if it touches a man's penis he will die. The same fear is applied when the baby touches it during its birth.

It's also believed that the procedure enhances fertility and makes childbirth safer.


FGM isn't practised by the majority of Muslims but when it is carried out by Muslims they cite religion frequently as a reason. The Qur'an does not contain any call for FGM, but a few statements are linked to it. E.g. the prophet is quoted to say "reduce but do not destroy".

Christian missionaries tried to discourage the practice but found it too deeply rooted. In some cases to keep their converts they ignored and even condoned the practice.

FGM in Austria

A study over 250 immigrant families in Austria says that 30% of them have daughters who are excised. The majority of them were operated in their countries but some of them were mutilated in Austria. Not only men but also women favour this tradition and according to the organisation of African women in Austria information work is more important than the penalty of 10 years imprisonment.


Founded in 2001 by Waris Dirie and its mission is to eliminate FGM in Somalia.

Its program:

Medical Health Centre

A centre that is completely facilitated with medical equipment to deal with the many health problems facing the victims of FGM. It also teaches Somali women about Family Planning and gives advice to be better able to focus on their own personal family planning.

Medical Mobile Units

Reaches areas in the desert and provides education for nomad families.

Aids Education Workshop

In order to decrease the risk of HIV infection

Health Guidance Class

School programs that teach about health and sex to both girls and boys so that they understand the form and functions of their bodies and that they understand that circumcision is harmful and wrong.

FGM Educational Workshops

For teachers in their own country and abroad to make clear to them, that they can have an impact on the children and their future points of view.

Transforming the Rites of Passage

Proposes alternative rituals to eliminate physical cutting and focuses on the celebration as the main aspect.

Media Declaration and Advertising

Promotion in the media (newspapers, radio and television) throughout Somalia.

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