Posted by Kimberley Meijers on December 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm
My family was a tribe of herdsmen in the Somalian desert. And as a child, the freedom I had to 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, those 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 had 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. This time I determined that I would run away.
My nightmare journey began when my father announced he had arranged my marriage. I had to act fast, I told my mother I wanted to run. My plan was to find an aunt who lived in Mogadishu, the capital, a place I had never been.
While my father and the rest of the family were sleeping, my mother woke me and said, “Go now.”
I looked around, but there was nothing to take—no water, milk or food. So, barefoot and wearing only a scarf draped around me, I ran off into the black desert night.
I didn’t know which direction led to Mogadishu; I just ran. Slowly at first, because I couldn’t see. But as the sky lighted, I was off like a gazelle. I ran for hours.
By midday I’d traveled deep into the red sand. The landscape stretched on to eternity. Hungry, thirsty and tired, I slowed and walked.
As I pondered what was going to happen next, I heard, “Waris … Waris…” My father’s voice echoed all around me! I was frightened. If he caught me, I knew that he would make me, marry.
Even though I had gotten a head start, Papa had tracked me down by following my footprints through the sand. He was close.
I started to run. I looked back and saw him coming over the hill. He spotted me too. Terrified, I ran faster. It was as if we were surfing waves of sand; I flew up one hill, and he glided down the one behind me. On and on we continued for hours, until I realized I hadn’t seen him for some time. He no longer called to me.
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 pain. 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 in days, so my weak legs wobbled and folded beneath me. I slumped back against the tree that had sheltered me from the merciless African sun. 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.
Finally he turned and walked away, no doubt deciding that I had so little flesh, I wasn’t worth eating.
When I realized the lion was not going to kill me, I knew that God had something else planned, some reason to keep me alive. “What is it?” I asked as I struggled to my feet. “Direct me.”
Before I ran away from home, my life had been built around nature and family. Like most Somalis, we lived the 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 to trade for goods. 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 got my long stick and headed 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 span of daylight available.
Our home was a tentlike domed hut woven from grass and built on a framework of sticks; it was about six feet 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 setup 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 dark and smooth, as if perfectly chiseled from black marble.
Her demeanor 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 band, had always roamed the desert. When he asked permission to marry my mother, my grandmother said, ‘Absolutely not.” However, when Mama was about 16, she ran away and married Papa anyhow.
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.
In a nomadic culture like the one I was raised in, there is no place for an unmarried woman, so mothers feel it is 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 had been-a practice called infibulation.
Paying the gypsy woman for this circumcision is one of the greatest expenses a household will undergo, but is considered a good investment. Without it the daughters 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 the 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 out into the brush. “We’ll wait 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 toward 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.”
Mama leaned over and 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 carpet-bag. 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. While she was scrubbing, 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 ankles to my hips so I couldn’t move. I turned my head toward the rock; it was drenched with 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 minuscule hole the diameter of a matchstick.
As the days dragged on and 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.
I was around 13 when came home one evening and called, “Come here,” in a soft voice. Normally he was very stern, so I began to feel suspicious.He sat me on his knee. “You know,” he began, “you’ve been really good.” Now I knew something serious was up. “You’ve been working hard as any man, taking good care of the animals. And I want you to know I’m going to miss you very much.”
When he said this, I thought he was afraid I was going to run away like my sister, Aman, had when he had tried to arrange her marriage.
I hugged him. “Oh, Papa, I’m not going anywhere.”
He pulled back, stared at my face and said, “Yes, you are, my darling. I found you a husband.”
“No, Papa, no!” I shook my head. “I’m not going to marry.”
I had grown into a rebel, sassy and fearless. Papa had to find me a husband while I was still a valuable commodity, because no African man wanted to be challenged by his wife. I felt sick and scared.
The next day I was milking my goats when my father called, “Come here, my darling. This is Mr.-”
I didn’t hear another word. My eyes fastened onto a man sitting down, holding on to a cane. He was at least 60 years old, with a long white beard.
“Waris, say hello to Mr. Galool.” (name has been changed to protect privacy)
“Hello,” I said in the iciest voice I could muster.
The old fool just sat there grinning at me. I stared at him in horror. I looked at my father, and when he saw my face, he realized his best tactic was to shoo me away so I didn’t scare off my prospective husband. “Go finish your chores,” he said.
I ran back to my goats.
Early the next morning my father called me. “You know that was your future husband.”
“But Papa, he’s so old!”
“That’s the best kind. He’s too old to run around. He’s not going to leave you. He’ll look after you. And besides,” Papa grinned proudly- “he’s giving me five camels.”
As I sat watching the goats that day, I knew it would be the last time I looked after my father’s herd. I pictured my life with the old man in some isolated desert place. Me doing all the work, while he limped around with his cane. Me living alone after he had a heart attack, or raising four or five babies by myself after he died.
I made up my mind–this was not the life for me.
That evening after everyone went to sleep, I went to my mother, who was still sitting and whispered, “I’m going to run away.”
“Shhh, quiet! Where are you going to go?”
“Mogadishu.” My sister, Aman, was there.
“Go to bed.” Her stern look seemed to say the subject was closed.
While I was sleeping, Mama knelt on the ground beside me and lightly tapped my arm. “Go—go before he wakes up,” she said softly into my ear. My escape across the desert was about to begin.
I felt her arms tighten around me. In the gloomy 1ight I struggled to see her face, trying to memorize its features. I had planned to be strong, but instead choked on my tears and hugged her hard.
“You’re going to be all right,” she said. “Just be very careful. Careful! And Waris…, please, one thing. Don’t forget me.”
“I won’t, Mama.” I spun away from her and ran into the darkness.
A port city on the Indian Ocean, Mogadishu was beautiful then. Walking along, I craned my neck to look at the stunning white buildings surrounded by palm trees and brightly colored flowers. Much of the architecture was built by the Italians when the city was the capital of Italian Somaliland, giving the city a Mediterranean feel.I arrived there several weeks after fleeing home. Along the way cousins sheltered me, told me news of Aman, and gave me money to complete the journey. Once in the city, I got directions to my sister’s neighborhood and asked some women at a market if they knew Aman.
‘I thought you looked familiar!” one cried. Then she told her son to take me to Aman’s house. We walked1 along the quiet streets until we came to a tiny shack, I went inside, found my sister asleep and woke her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked groggily, looking at me as if I were a dream. I sat down and told her my story. At last I had someone to talk to who
would understand. She had found a husband, a good man who worked hard.
They were expecting their first child.
Hers was a cramped two-room place, but she grudgingly agreed I could stay as long as I needed. I cleaned the house, scrubbed the clothes and did the shopping in the market. And after Aman gave birth to a beautiful little girl, I helped take care of the baby.
However, it became clear that my sister and I were not alike. She was bossy and treated me like the same little sister she’d left behind five or so years before.
We had other relatives I’d met in Mogadishu, so I went and knocked on the door of Aunt Sahru, my mother sister, and asked if I could stay with her family for a while.
“You have a friend here,” she said. “If you want to stay with us, you can.”
Things were off to a better start than I’d imagined. Once again, I began helping around the house.
I had been worried about leaving Mama without anyone to help her with her work, and one day I decided that a partial remedy was to send her money.
So I set out to find a job. I stopped at a construction site and convinced the man in charge that I could carry sand and mix as well as the men.
The next morning my career as a construction worker began. It was horrible. I carried backbreaking loads of sand all day and developed enormous blisters on my hands. Everyone thought I would quit, but I stuck it out for a month. By then I had saved $60, which I sent to Mama through an acquaintance, but she never saw a penny of it.
I had started cleaning house for my aunt again when one day Mohammed Chama Farah, the Somalian ambassador in London, arrived. He was married to yet another aunt, my mother’s sister Maruim.*
As I dusted my way around the next room, I overheard him say he needed to find a servant before beginning his four-year diplomatic appointment in London. This was my opportunity.
I called Aunt Saliru aside. “Please ask him if I can be his maid.”
She walked back into the other room, sat beside her brother-in-law and said quietly, “Why don’t you take her? She really is a good cleaner.”
Auntie called me, and I leapt through the door. I stood with my feather duster in hand, smacking gum. The ambassador frowned.
I turned to Auntie. “Tell him I’m the best.”
“Waris, shhh!” To my uncle she said, “She’s young. She’ll be okay.
Uncle Mohammed sat still for a moment, looking at me with disgust. “Okay. Be here tomorrow afternoon. We’ll go to London.”
London! I didn’t know where it was, but I knew it was very far away, and far away was where I wanted to be. I was on fire with excitement.
The next day Uncle Mohammed picked me up and gave me my passport. I looked at it in wonder, the first paper with my name on it. I hugged Auntie Sahru and waved farewell.
As the driver eased the car out of the airport and into the London morning traffic, I was overcome by such a sad, lonely feeling, in this completely foreign place, with nothing but white, sickly faces around me.Snow was turning the sidewalks white as we glided through a posh residential section. When we stopped in front of my uncle’s home, I stared in astonishment. The ambassador’s residence was a four-story mansion.
We walked to the front door and entered. Auntie Maruim greeted me in the foyer.
“Come in,” she said coolly. “Close the door.”
I had planned to rush to her and hug her, but something about the way she stood there in her stylish Western clothes, her hands pressed together, made me freeze in the doorway. “First I’d like to show you around and explain your duties.”
“Oh,” I said quietly, feeling the last spark of energy leave my body after the long night. “Auntie, I’m very tired. I want to lie down. Can I please go to sleep?”
Aunt Maruim took me into her room. The four-poster was the size of my family’s entire hut. I climbed under the covers. I had never felt anything so soft and heavenly in my life, and I fell asleep as if I were falling down a long black tunnel.
The following morning I was wandering through the house when she found me. “Good. You’re up. Let’s go to the kitchen, and I can show you what you’ll be doing.”
I followed in a daze. The room gleamed with blue ceramic tiles and creamy-white cabinets. A six-burner stove dominated the center. Auntie opened and slammed drawers, calling out, “And here are the utensils, the cutlery, the linens.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“At six-thirty each morning you’ll serve your uncle’s breakfast: herbal tea and two poached eggs. I’d like my coffee in my room at seven. Then you’ll make pancakes for the children; they eat at eight sharp. After breakfast-”
‘Auntie, who’s going to teach me these things? What’s pancakes?”
She stared at me with a sort of panicky look. Exhaling slowly, she said, “I’ll do these things for the first time, Waris. Watch closely. Listen and learn.” I nodded.
I had the routine down t a science after the first week and followed it every day for the next four years. For a girl who had never been aware of time, I learned to watch the clock closely—and live by it.
After breakfast I cleaned the kitchen, my aunt’s room and her bathroom. Then I worked through each room of the house, dusting, mopping, scrubbing and polishing my way up all four floors. I kept working until I fell into bed around mid-night. I never had a day off.
Throughout Africa it’s common for more affluent family members to take in the children of their poor relations, and those children work in return for their upkeep. Sometimes the relatives educate the children and treat them like one of their own. Obviously, my aunt and uncle had more important issues on their minds.
During the summer of 1983, when I was about 16, Uncle Mohammed’s sister died and her little daughter, Sophie,* came to live with us. My uncle enrolled her in All Souls Church of England Primary School, and my morning routine then included walking Sophie to school.
On one of the first mornings, as we strolled, I saw a strange man starting at me. He was white, around 40 and had a ponytail. He had brought his daughter to the school. He didn’t hide the fact that he was staring.
After I left Sophie at the door, he walked toward me and started speaking. Since I didn’t speak English, I had no idea what he was saying. Frightened, I ran home.
From then on, each time I saw him at the school, he simply smiled politely and went on about his business. Then one day he walked up and handed me a card. I tucked it in my pocket and watched as he turned to walk away.
When I got home, I showed the card to one of Auntie Maruim’s daughters. “What does it say?”
“It says he’s a photographer.”
I saw that my cousin wanted to get back to the book she was reading, so I hid the card in my room. Some little voice told me to hang on to it.
When Uncle Mohammed’s term was coming to an end, he announced the family would be going home. I wasn’t excited about returning to Somalia. I wanted to go home wealthy and successful, but I had saved only a pittance from my main’s wages. My dream was to make enough money to buy my mother a house, an to accomplish this, I felt I should stay in England. How I would manage this, I didn’t know. But I had faith.
Uncle Mohammed advised us all of the date we were leaving, and of the need to make sure our passports were in order. I promptly sealed mine in a plastic bag, buried it in the garden and announced I couldn’t find it. My plan was simple enough: if I didn’t have a passport, they couldn’t take me back. Uncle smelled something rotten, but I said, “Just leave me here. I’ll be fine.”
Until the morning of departure, I hadn’t really believed that they would leave me all alone. But they did. I stood on the sidewalk, waved good-bye and watched the car until it was out of sight. I was scared and had to fight an overwhelming feeling of panic.
I picked up my little duffel, slung it over my shoulder, unearthed my passport and headed down the street, smiling.
I entered a store that same day and saw a tall, attractive African woman examining some sweaters. We began talking in Somali, and she was quite friendly. Her name was Halwu.*”Where do you live, Waris? What do you do?”
“Oh, you’ll think I’m crazy, but I don’t have any place to live because my family went back to Somalia today. My uncle was the ambassador, but now the new man is coming. So right this minute, I have no idea where I’m headed.”
She waved to silence me, as if the movement of her hand could sweep away all my problems. “I have a room at the YMCA. You can come and stay for the night.”
Halwu and I became close friends. After a few days I took a room at the YWCA right across the way. Then I set out to find a job.
“Why don’t you start by looking right here?” Halwu said, pointing to McDonald’s.
“There’s no way. I can’t speak English or read. Besides, I don’t have a work permit.”
But she knew the ropes, and I began working there, in the kitchen. I washed dishes, wiped counters, scrubbed grills and mopped floors. I went home at night smelling of grease. But I didn’t complain, because at least now I could support myself. I was grateful to have a job.
I began going to free language school, learning English and how to read and write. For the first time in years my days weren’t only about work.
Sometimes Halwu took me to nightclubs, where the whole crowd seemed to know her. Overcoming my strict African upbringing, I chatted away, forcing myself to talk with everyone-black, white, male, female. I had to learn survival skills for this new world. My life was moving smoothly. It was about to change dramatically.
One afternoon when I got back home from McDonald’s, I pulled out the photographer’s card, which I’d stuck in my passport, and marched to Halwu’s room. I showed her the card, explained the history and said, “I never really understood what he wanted.”
“Well, she said, “why don’t you call and ask him?”
“You talk to him. My English is still not very good.”
She did, and the next day I went to inspect Mike Goss’s studio. I had no idea what to expect, but when I opened the door, I stumbled into another world. Hanging everywhere in the lobby were enormous posters featuring beautiful women. “Oh!” I said, spinning. I just knew-this is it. This is my opportunity.
Mike came out and explained that as soon as he saw me, he had wanted to take my picture. I stared at him with my mouth hanging open. “That’s it? A picture like this?” I waved at the posters.
“Yes,” he said, nodding emphatically. “You have the most beautiful profile.”
Two days later I returned to the studio. The makeup woman sat me down and started to work, coming at me with cotton, brushes, sponges, creams, paints, powders, poking me with her fingers and pulling my skin.
“Now”-the woman stepped back and looked at me with satisfaction- “look in the mirror.”
I stared in the glass. My face was transformed, all golden, silky, and light with makeup. “Wow! Look at me!”
The woman led me out to Mike, who positioned me on a stool. I studied objects I’d never seen before: the camera, lights, battery packs, cords hanging like snakes.
“Okay, Waris,” he said. “Put your lips together and stare straight ahead. Chin up. That’s it-beautiful!”
I heard a click, followed by a loud pop, which made me jump. The flashes went off; the lights blazing for a split second. Somehow the lights made me feel like a different person.
Mike took a piece of paper from the camera and motioned for me to walk over. He pulled off the top layer of paper. As I watched, a woman gradually emerged from the sheet as if by magic. When he handed me the Polaroid; I barely recognized myself. There was a glamorous creature like the ones posing in the lobby. They had transformed me. Instead of Waris the maid, I was Waris the model.
Sometime later, a woman at a modeling agency who had seen that photo sent me for a job casting. I had no idea what she was talking about, but she gave me taxi money and I went to the address.The place was crawling with professional models strutting like lionesses circling for the kill. I said hello to one of them. “What is the job?”
“Mmmmm.” I nodded. “Thank you.” What is that?
The photographer, Terence Donovan, brought me tea and showed me all his work. Lying on a table was a calendar. He flipped through it; on each page was a different, stunningly gorgeous woman. “This is last year’s Pirelli calendar,” he told me. “This year it’s going to be different-just African women.” He explained the whole process to me. By that point I felt comfortable, and from then on I was a complete professional. And when the job was done, my picture wound up being selected for the cover.
My career as a model got better and better. I worked in Paris, Milan and then New York, where I immediately began running faster and making more money than ever before. I appeared in a series of commercials for a jeweler, wearing white African robes. I did makeup ads for Revlon, then later represented their new perfume, Ajee. The commercial announced, “From the heart of Africa comes a fragrance to capture the heart of every woman.”
I appeared in a Revlon commercial with Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Lauren Hutton. These projects kept snowballing, and soon I was in the big fashion magazines: Elle, Glamour, Italian Vogue, and British and American Vogue.
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 only permitted urine to escape 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 had 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 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 that 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 Dr. Michael
Macrae’s* office, I said to him, “There’s something I haven’t told you. I’m from Somalia and I…I…”
He didn’t even let me finish the sentence. “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 the 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 wasn’t happy. He glared at the doctor and then said to me, “Well, if you really want it, 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, and 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.
In 1995 the BBC proposed making a documentary about my life as a supermodel. I told the director, Gerry Pomeroy, I’d do it if he’d take me back to Somalia and help me find my mother. He agreed.The BBC staff in Africa began searching diligently. We went over maps, and I tried to show them the regions where my family usually traveled. Next I had to go over all the tribal and clan names of my family.
Suddenly the desert was alive with women claiming to be my mother, but none were. Then Gerry came up with an idea. “We need some kind of secret that only your mother would know about you.”
“Well, my mother used to have a nickname for me-Avdohol.”
“Will she remember that?”
From then on, Avdohol became the secret password. When the BBC was interviewing, the women would make it through the first couple of questions; then they’d flunk out on the nickname. But finally the BBC called me: “We think we’ve found her.” This woman didn’t remember the nickname, but she said she has a daughter named Waris who worked for the ambassador in London.”
Within days we flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and chartered a small twin-engine plane to take us to Galadi, a village on the Ethiopia-Somalia border where Somali refugees had gathered to escape the fighting at home.
I smelled the hot air and the sand, and suddenly I remembered my lost childhood. Every little thing came flooding back to me, and I began to run. I touched the ground and rubbed the earth between my fingers. I touched the trees. They were dusty and dry, but I knew it was time for the rains soon, when everything would blossom.
Then we found out the woman was not my mother. We combed the village, asking everybody if they had any information about my family. An older man walked up to me and said, “Do you remember me?”
“Well, I’m Ismail; I’m from the same tribe as your father. I’m a very close friend of his.” And then I realized who he was and felt ashamed for not recognizing him, but I hadn’t seen him since I was a little girl. “I think I know where your family is. I think I can find your mother, but I’ll need money for gas.
The BBC crew agreed and gave him some cash. He hopped into his truck and took off immediately, raising a cloud of dust. Three days passed with no sign of Mama. Gerry grew more anxious by the day. “1 promise you my mother will be here tomorrow evening by six o’clock,” I told him. I don’t know why I had this belief-it just came to me.
The next day Gerry jogged up at about ten minutes to six. “You’re not going to believe it! The man is back and he’s got a woman with him; he says it’s your mother.”
Up ahead was Ismail’s pickup, and a woman was climbing down from the seat. I couldn’t see her face, but from the way she wore her scarf-I could tell immediately that it was my mother, I ran to her. “Oh, -Mama!”
At first, we just discussed little everyday things. But the gladness I felt at seeing her overcame the gap between us. Papa was off searching for water when the truck came. My mother said Papa was getting old. He would go off chasing the clouds looking for rain, but he desperately needed glasses because his eyesight was terrible.
My little brother Ali was also with her, along with one of my cousins. I kept holding Ali, and he would cry, “Get off now I’m not a baby. I’m getting married.”
“Married! How old are you?”
“1 don’t know. Old enough to get married.”
At night Mama slept in the hut of one of the families in Galadi who had taken us in. I slept outside with Ali-just like in the old days. As we lay there at night, I felt such a state of peace and happiness.
My brother started asking me what I thought about this and that.
“Well, I don’t know everything, but I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot I didn’t know living back in the bush.”
They didn’t know whether to believe this bizarre idea, but there was one topic they felt confident I couldn’t argue with. My mother started “why aren’t you married?” “Mama, do I have to be married? Don’t you want to see me a success- strong, independent?”
“Well, I want grandchildren.” Gerry got several scenes of me with my mother. But she hated it, saying: “Get that thing out of my face.” The cameraman asked what we were laughing about. “Just the absurdity of it all,” I answered.
The next morning before the plane came to get us I asked my mother if she would like to come back and live with me in England or the United States.
“But what would I do?”
That’s precisely it. I don’t want you to do anything. You’ve done enough work. It’s time to rest.”
“No. Your father’s getting old and he needs me. Besides, I can’t just sit around. If you want to do something, get me a place in Somalia that I can go to when I’m tired. This is my home. This is all I’ve ever known.”
I gave her a big hug. “I love you, Mama. I’m coming back for you, don’t you forget that.”
By now my career had taken off. I was appearing in commercials, music videos, and worked with the biggest photographers in the fashion business. My life was heavenly.I had told Mama that I had not found the right man for me. But then one night in the fall of 1995 I discovered him in a tiny jazz club in New York. He was a shy drummer with a ’70s Afro and a funky style. His name was Dana Murray, and I knew from that moment he was my man.
At dinner the next night I laughed and told him that someday I was going to have his baby. For the first time in my life I wanted a man. Soon we realized we were in love and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. My crazy prediction came true with the birth of our son on June 13, 1997; He was beautiful, with silky black hair and long feet and fingers.
I named him Aleeke. With his tiny mouth, chubby cheeks and halo of curls, he looks like a little black cupid.
From the day he was born, my life changed. The happiness I get from him is everything to me now. Life–the gift of life-is what matters, and that’s what giving birth to my son made me remember.
After going through the cycle of womanhood that began prematurely with my circumcision at age five and came full circle with my baby’s birth when I was about 30, I had even more respect for my own mother. I understood what incredible strength the women in Somalia possess.
I thought of the girl back in the bush, walking miles to water her goats while she’s in such pain from her period that she can barely stand. Of the woman nine months pregnant hunting for food in the desert to feed her starving children. Of the wife who will be sewn back up with a needle and thread as soon as she gives birth so her vagina will remain tight for her husband. And of the new wife who’s still sewn up tight, and it’s time for her first baby to be born. What happens when she goes out into the desert alone, as my mother did?
As I grew older and more educated, I learned that because of a cruel ritual, many of the women on the continent of Africa live their lives in pain.
Somebody must speak out for the little girl with no voice. And since I began as a nomad like so many of them, I felt it was my destiny to help them.
Some time back, Laura Ziv, a writer for the fashion magazine Marie Claire, made an appointment to interview me. When we met, I liked her right away. I said, “I don’t know what kind of story you wanted from me, but all of that fashion model stuff’s been done a million times. If you promise to publish it, I’ll give you a real story.”
She said, “Oh? Well, I’ll do my best,” and switched on her tape recorder I began telling her the story of my circumcision when I was a child. Halfway through the interview, she started crying and turned off the tape. “I mean, it’s horrible, it’s disgusting. I never dreamed such things still happen today.”
“That’s the point,” I said. “People in the West don’t know.”
The day after the interview, I felt stunned and embarrassed. Everybody would know my most personal secret. My closest friends didn’t know what had happened to me as a little girl, and now I was telling millions of strangers.
But 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 was 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.
When the interview came out, the response was dramatic. The magazine was swamped with letters. I began giving more interviews and speaking at schools, community organizations and anywhere I could to publicize the issue.
In 1997 the United Nations Population Fund invited me to join its fight to stop female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM), as it is more aptly called today. The World Health Organization has compiled some truly terrifying statistics that put the extent of the problem in perspective. After I saw those numbers, it became clear that this wasn’t just my problem.
FGM is practiced predominantly in Africa-in 28 countries. Now cases have been reported among girls and women in the United States and Europe, where there are large number of African immigrants. This practice 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 6000 a day.
The operations are usually performed in primitive circumstances by village women using knives, scissors, even sharp stones. They use no anesthetic. 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, and which prohibits the girl from enjoying sex for the rest of her life.
When I imagine more little girls going through what I went through, it breaks my heart and makes me angry.
With great pride, I accepted the U.N. Population Fund’s offer to become a special ambassador and to join its fight. I will return to Africa to tell my story and speak out against this crime.
Friends have expressed concern that a fanatic will try to kill me, since many fundamentalists consider FGM a holy practice demanded by the Koran. However, this is not the case; neither the Koran nor the Bible makes any mention of female genital mutilation.
I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain and that it becomes a thing of the past. That’s what I’m working toward.
From the moment God saved me from a lion, I felt he had a plan for me, some reason to keep me alive. My faith tells me God has work for me to do and this is my mission.
I’m sure my work will be dangerous. I admit to being scared. But I might as well take a chance. It’s what I’ve done all my life.