The biography of a Somali nomad girl made a huge impression on me, for a number of reasons.
My strongest reaction was to the dreadful topic of FGM (female genital mutilation) . Although I was born in Africa and have lived on the continent all my life: having a British Colonial upbringing, the notion of FGM is an anathema to me. Apart from the pain and suffering inflicted on young girls, under the most primitive, unhygienic conditions, it upholds the patriarchal norm that women exist purely as chattels and objects of sexual gratification. I don’t even know where to begin ranting about this issue. For more on this topic go to: link Not to mention the host of genito/urinary/gynae problems that persist for the unfortunate women’s lives.
Prior to reading the memoir, I had always been baffled as to why generations of women continued to inflict pain and mutilation on their daughters. I had never understood how or why women could willingly perpetuate barbaric practices upon their daughters. But Waris Dirie’s explanation finally shed a ray of light on the vexed topic. She explained that just as parents in the West might go to great lengths to provide a top notch education for their daughters, in her Somali society, parents felt they had to ensure their girl children were ‘circumcised’ because if they were not, they would be considered ‘unclean’ (by men, of course !!!)and would not be marriageable. Taken in context, the Somali adherence to FGM makes cultural sense. In Somali culture, patriarchy rules. In fact, in most African cultures, to the best of my knowledge. Provided one can swallow the notion that girls are married off at an early age, say 12 years upwards, usually as a commercial transaction; bride price paid in camels.
Apart from the thorny FGM issue, about which Waris was horribly matter of fact, her account of growing up as a nomad in the deserts of Somalia was fascinating. Despite the hard life – little food, and always a scarcity of water, she waxed lyrical about the freedom of a life lived outdoors, and the closeness of family around the nightly campfire. When I recall early films like the Rudolf Valentino Sheik and contrast it to the real-life account of Waris: well! I think many of us may have had teenage romantic fantasy of being swept off our feet by Rudolf V and whisked away to his silken tents in the remote desert, where he … can you feel the steam coming off this page? As ever, the actuality of life lived in harsh desert conditions is entirely another matter.
Another thing that I found amusing, was Waris’ later comments on the spoilt Western girls in the modelling world of NYC, complaining about trivia and the hard work of being a model (admittedly being a model is no picnic) which Waris views with wry scorn. The gist of her attitude was that the soft Western women had absolutely no idea of what a hard life really meant. And, having personally witnessed rural African womens’ hard lives, I heartily agree with her. Those urban princesses have absolutely no cookin’ clue.
The book shows that Rags to Riches stories really do take place outside the covers of romantic fiction, albeit via a very hard path, in Waris’ case.
And lastly, the memoir bears out one of my favourite sayings : Truth is always stranger than fiction.