Waris Dirie, Goat herder to model
By Sarah Toms

LONDON, April 23 (Reuters) - The flawless features of Somali beauty Waris Dirie have graced magazine covers and billboards the world over. She made history by becoming the first black woman to be featured in advertisements for Oil of Ulay. She has even had a role in a James Bond movie. But recently she has found a new calling. Dirie has put aside her modelling career and is on a world tour to promote her autobiography, "Desert Flower," which traces her rags-to-riches life story. It also carries a deeper and more disturbing message about the horrors of female genital mutilation. As a young girl in her native Somalia, Dirie was circumcised with a rusty razor blade and now speaks out about its dangers and debilitating after-effects as a special ambassador for the United Nations. "It's a hard job because I have to tell the same story, over and over and over and over again," she told Reuters in an interview that ranged from
laughter to tears. "It's not like you can change your script and mine happens to be the most bizarre story." Some days she just wants to collapse and lock herself in the toilet because she feels so drained. "I feel so naked that the whole world is watching. I feel like I've been thrown out to the lions and I have to fight it. But it's to do with the job and I have to make people aware of this problem in Africa," she said. By writing her life story, Dirie has found she can reach out to more people about the dangers of female circumcision. "I thought: Imagine how many women around the world who've been through the same thing and had the same experiences and feel how I feel?" she said. "I couldn't find anybody who could answer those questions and I thought, well, I'll do it myself then."

Dirie was born into the nomadic Daarood tribe in Somalia-a life without electricity, telephones or cars. Home was a portable hut woven from grass. When she was five, her mother held her down while a local woman cut away her genitals. Afterwards, she was stitched up tightly, leaving a hole the diameter of a matchstick. "I felt not complete with myself as a woman. Some days I felt so powerless," she said. "When I think back about that, it still disturbs me. But coming back over that is still the hardest thing for me because you have to learn about yourself, you have to feel comfortable with yourself." Although Dirie survived the razor, her sister and two cousins did not. The United Nations says female genital mutilation is practised in some 30 African countries as well as parts of the Middle East and Asia. No one knows its precise origin, although it may date back to ancient Egypt. In Somalia, nine of 10 girls are circumcised. Two are likely to die by bleeding to death or through infection. Others will suffer life-long pain.

Dirie's life changed forever when she was 14. She fled to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after her father tried to marry her to a 60-year-old man in exchange for five camels. A well-connected uncle provided an escape route to London. She stayed in Britain illegally and survived by scrubbing floors in a fast food restaurant. By chance, she was discovered by a photographer who put her face on the cover of the Pirelli calendar. From there, her career took off. "It's very sad that I had to make the choice to leave my country and at the same time I did not want to leave," she said. "Africa is different. I was young. I had nothing to worry about. I had my family, I had my animals, I had my simple life. It was beautiful." Dirie now lives in New York but still feels the contrasts between the West and her war-torn home. "Here it seems like it is chaos forever and I'm trying to sit down for a moment and there's no time for that," she laughed. "In Somalia we don't have a time so we don't care what time it is. But in the West, everything is money-money, power, sucking, sucking away. It is never enough."

Dirie's testimony is the sad story of thousands of women. By telling her story, she hopes to bring an end to the suffering caused by female circumcision. "I think about every single one of them every day and I'm trying to get there before it happens to that child," she said, wiping a tear from her eye. But the United Nations faces strong opposition because many African men and women believe in a tradition they say is part of their heritage. For Dirie, it has little to do with tradition and nothing to do with religion. "It is mainly God, power control. It's mainly men showing they are physically stronger and being cowards and controlling you by torturing you," she said. "It's been going a long time but they can't see the world has moved on and life changes and they've stuck to it. The men they don't know what it feels like-but if I cut his balls off then he knows!" Dirie waits for the day that female circumcision has been abolished. "I pray for it every night and I won't rest until I complete my mission because I'm so deeply into it," she said. "We have to get over this because no woman deserves to be sliced up like an animal."
22:08 04-22-99