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Desert Flower by Cathleen Miller and Waris Dirie

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3452 words Published: 23rd Jun 2017

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Last year, I watched the adapted movie of the book, “Desert Flower” in the cinema. That movie has fascinated, motivated and likewise evoke interest in me. In my opinion it is incredible how people can live under those bad conditions in Africa. For that reason, I wanted to read the book. In the following essay I will focus on the ancient customs and the culture of the nomads. There are several questions to think about when discussing about the role of women in Somalia. In particular, I will find out about the importance, meaning and purpose of the female genital mutilation. After writing my thesis I would like to research in what way the women in Somalia are treated and if they are put under pressure by their men and whether there is egalitarianism in their society. In addition, during those researches, I want to develop my own point of view.

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Desert Flower is the true Story based on the life of Waris Dirie. All actions, mentioned in the text are factual. The author of the book, “Desert Flower”, Waris Dirie, is a very hardworking girl. She is one of the children born into a traditional family of tribal desert nomads of Somalia in East Africa. With her family, she has experienced a very closed and formative culture, whose habits and rituals, in the truest sense of the word, left scars behind. She has a very good relationship with her family. However, Waris Dirie is adversely affected by the practice of the painful female circumcision. Later, she is going to report about the genital mutilation due to her family tradition and to draw attention to what happens with the girls in her home land.

Efficient Examination with my topic

1. Characteristic Lives of Nomads in Somalia

To begin with, in the extraordinary journey of a desert nomad Dirie speaks from her own daily experiences in a traditional living nomad family during her epitaxial growth. Therefore, the reader gets to know about the parents, teaching their children all the skills they need to survive. They neither learn how to read nor to write because the family cannot afford to pay for their children education. Her mother teaches Dirie to care about her younger siblings and how to provide her family with enough food, whereas her father teaches her how to take care of their animals. Usually nomads are uneducated. They just live very simple and know about things that have been passed on throughout generations. At times, there is not enough food for the whole family. The priority is to feed the smallest children, then the older ones. Waris Dirie cannot remember ever seeing her mother eat. Her mother always has waived her rights. Somalia remains a very deeply troubled country because everyone lives the way their ancestors had for thousands of years. Like most of Somalis, Diries’ family lives the lifestyle of herdsman. That means Somali nomad’s never stay at a place longer than four weeks. They always look for another place where new water resources are available and move there. That is why they do not have a certain habitation. (p. 40- 41)

The father of every family is the head and protector. He makes all the decisions which concern the whole family. At many times, Waris Dirie has to feel the brutal beat of her father because he wants to remind her of taking her work seriously. Being nomads, the family of Dirie does not have any material prosperity like automobiles, electricity or telephones. They do not have any artificial time constructions like clocks and calendars. That is why Dirie do not really know how old she is, she can only guess. Dirie (1998) argues that “In Africa there was no hurry, no stress. African time is very, very slow, very calm”. (p. 42) I believe that nomads have a much different perspective of life. Generally speaking, their routine of the day is incomparable. They decide every morning anew what they have to do and therefore they are living by the seasons and the sun. In particular, Waris talks about children in Somalia who are not allowed to attend to her parents affairs. She just has to obey all the time, regarding her parents with great respect, following their wishes. In addition, it is usual for the man having multiple wives. The man wants to have a lot of children but after a while, the women are either physically not able to carry out children anymore or are mentally against another birth due to pain during pregnancies or for other emotional reasons. As a result, the man leaves and looks for another wife that is willing to carry out children. (p. 41- 43)

According to Dirie (1998), “The nomad’s life is a harsh one, but it is also full of beauty- a life so connected to nature that the two are inseparable” (page 58). A better way for nomads to put this is that water is a very important but an infrequently and scarce resource in life because they do not have any water- taps. They have a deep respect for water and they love it. Dirie (1998) describes the source of water as “such an uninhibited feeling of freedom and joy”. (p.322) People have to pray for rain and if there are not any raindrops, they have to go on a long search for it. “Simply looking at it gives me great joy”. (Dirie, 1998, p. 60) This quotation shows that people in Somalia appreciate the simple things they have in their lives. Furthermore Dirie tells about their celebrations where they thank God for having such a precious and beautiful life where all are praying, singing, dancing and eating together. (p. 43, 47- 61)

  • The infancy of Waris Dirie: Growing up with animals

For Waris Dirie, her family, nature and the animals (compare App. p. 12, figure 2) are the main elements of life. “We grew up with animals, prospered when they prospered, suffered when they suffered, died when they died” (Dirie, 1998, p. 17). Animals are very vital and helpful for nomads and they probably have the first priority, because they keep the tribes alive. (p. 16- 17)

People in Somalia have large herds of cattle, sheep, goats and camels. When Dirie was a young girl, she had been responsible for these herds of her family. Every morning she had to get up very early to move the herds to a fresh area. While the animals were grazing, she had to watch for other predators, like hyenas. A loss of the herd meant for Somali nomad’s the worse. A very important animal for the Somali nomads is the camel. No animal is such as suitable und valuable for living in the wilderness like camels. In addition, the camels have a special significance for the culture of the Somalia-nomads who always write poems and songs about their camels. Even the children know about the value of the protection of the camels. “From the time I was a baby, I knew of the great importance of these animals, because they’re absolutely gold in our society”. (Dirie, 1998, p. 18) A camel is never killed to be eaten. The qualities of a camel are too valuable, so that the death of these animals would show only one big loss. The camels are inalienable components and indispensable for the life of the Somali nomad’s in the desert. They make their lives considerably easier and have a cultural meaning for them. (p. 18- 25)

Anyhow, she has not experienced a typical childhood. At the age of four, she is raped by a friend of her father. She just feels something hard pressing into her vagina and she even does not understand what has happened to her in that moment. Later, when she runs away from home she is nearly raped a second time. She asks a trucker if he is able to pick her up. But then, he takes his pants down and Dirie (1998) states that “His erect penis bobbed at me as he grabbed my legs and tried to force them apart”, (p. 13). “Unlike me, he was experienced, no doubt raping many women; I was simply about to become the next one.” (Dirie, 1998, p. 13) With all her strength, she jumps off the truck and then, runs away. (p. 11- 14)

2. Nomad’s rituals: female circumcision in Somalia

It belongs to the culture of Somalis that every girl must experience the female genital mutilation (FGM) at the pubescent age which achieve the status of a Somali woman and therefore being able to marry. The curtailment of her sisters and later also her own, were carried out by a gypsy. In the society of the Somali nomads, she takes a high value and a high position, because she belongs to one of the least ones which know how to do the practice. Moreover, she gets a huge pay of the family because of the curtailment. (p. 64- 65)

When Waris goes through this practice at the age of five, it has changed her life because she trespasses the boarder of her childhood into her womanhood. Her younger sister and two cousins died fom this procedure. She describes this ancient ritual as very painful, but she is very jealous of her oldest sister because after the circumcision she becomes a women. “When I hears the old gypsy was coming to circumcise Aman, I wanted to be circumcised, too. (Dirie, 1998, p. 64) Because of this big desire for the circumcision, she screames: “Mama, do both of us at the same time. Come on, Mama, do both of us tomorrow!”. (Dirie, 1998, p. 64) Besides, it concerns removing the female genitals. “The next thing I felt was my flesh, my genitals, being cut away”. (Dirie, 1998, p. 70). During the execution, Waris losts also her consciousness. After removing the female genitals the girls have just one small opening left, in the size of a match head, for urinating and the monthly period. Waris suffered during her period always from strong pains, because the blood cannot flow naturally through the tiny hole. “The prevailing wisdom in Somalia is that there are bad things between a girl’s legs, parts of our bodies that we’re born with, yet are unclean”. (Dirie, 1998, p. 63). Also she had problems while urinating what mostly lasted several minutes. Moreover, this is a sign for the future man that she is still “purely”, so a virgin. (p. 62- 72)

After the execution of the genital mutilation, it is the traditional custom of the Somalis to built a hut for the girls until her physical scars left accured. This hut which is built out of staves and branches is placed far away from the trunk. Because of this expended distance the tribes could not hear the yelling of the pain. For the same reason, the curtailment is curried out in the early morning if still the other members of the family sleep. Because of the painful procedure, girls are lying helpless and unable to run. After the curtailment, merely food is brought to her in the lodging. Furthermore there is always danger of dying after the practice due to infections. If the woman has entered then into marriage, her husband either has the possibility to use a sharp object or just press his genitals into the women until it “bursts” again. As tools for the operation of this genital mutilation mostly arbitrary, filthy- sharp objects are used because the possibilities of suitable equipment are impossible in such regions and also no medical institutions exist. The disastrous results with themselves which end in many cases with the death bring the use such of immoderate utensils. The Somalis look at this tradition as an inalienable one, because girls with unscathed genitals are considered as inexpedient about the marriage, dirtily, repellent and slovenly. (p. 73- 78)

There are also a lot of unforgettable consequences which are closely connected with acute pain. “In the conditions under which female circumcision is generally performed in Africa, even the less extensive types of genital cutting can lead to potentially fatal complications, such as hemorrhage, infection and shock …”.(compare App. p. 11, figure 1)(Althaus, 1997)

  • Becoming a women-the Marriage contract

If a girl is cut, she is ready to be married. She must remain a virgin up to her wedding which her father always predicts her: “You’re supposed to be a virgin when you marry. Girls know they will marry as a virgin, and will marry only one man, and that’s it. That’s your life”. (Dirie, 1998, p. 81) She would marry even once in her life and spend her whole life with her husband. However, men have the right to have several women at the same time. The choice of the future husband is always made by the father and often against the will of the daughter. Besides, the choice mostly falls on that man which offers most camels. However, the wedding is one of the least and most important holidays in the life of the Somali nomads which is celebrated also accordingly traditional like Dirie (1998) reports in her journey that „When a girl marries, the women from her tribe go out into the desert and collect these flowers. They dry them, then add water to them and make a paste to spread on the bride’s face that gives her a golden glow”. (p. 58) Dirie (1998) also reports that “In my culture, a woman earns a badge of respect when she becomes a mother”. (p. 347) For a girl or a woman the wedding means the beginning of a new life, regardless and independent of her family and the foundation of an own family. (p. 81- 89)

A few years after her curtailment, at the age of about twelve years, Waris should be also married. It is hard for her father to found a man who advertises around them or offers an adequate price of the hand of his daughter. He is sixty years old but her father arranges his daughter a marriage. He offers five camels for Dirie. This is a high price for the marriage with this little girl. She denies and do not want to marry him. Dirie (1998) defends the argument that “As a girl in Somalia, I never thought about marriage or sex. In my family- in our culture- nobody ever talked about any of that. It never, ever, came to mind”. (p. 80) However, she defends herself not to marry this old man and to spend the rest of her life with this man. Dirie has always her own will and objections. This behavior pattern is not typically for a properly traditional educated Somali nomad. Somali men estimate women who obey and do not contradict. She has only two possibilities, either she would obey and marry the old man or to run away. She decides to leave her family, like her sister Aman did before and so she flees in the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu. (p. 90- 95)

3. Flashback to her childhood and aims for the future

In spite of criticising the practice of the female genital mutilation, Waris Dirie reports very positvie about her culture and she is still completely proud to be a nomad, born in Africa. From Dirie’s point of view, her mothercountry probably is not comparable to other countries because the families have a strong solidarity like nowhere else. “From the beginning, I had the instinct for survival; I learned joy and pain at the same time. I learned that happiness is not what you have, because I never had anything, and I was so happy. (Dirie, W. 1998, p.363) The growing up has changed the personality of Dirie (1998), because she reports that “Today, I cherish the value of the simple things”. (p. 364) On account of the horrible circumcision, Dirie is very angry, feels sad and often much pain. She cannot imagine that anybody would accept the practice and just because at the thought of the mutilation to other girls who all have to accept their fates. (p. 239- 242)

As Dirie (1998) has grown older, she realizes that “Well, these are my legs, and they’re a result of who I am and where I’m from (p. 286). That means she is very proud of her legs and her traditional past because they are the symbol for her origin and her family background. And everywhere she goes in the world, Dirie can remember the days with her family and her culture. At the end of the journey, Waris Dirie (1998) comes to the conclusion that “the most important priorities in the world are nature, personal goodness, family, and friendship. (p.294) Dirie wants to do something for all the women, which have to be circumcised. Apparently, there are millions of girls who also plague health problem because of the violent practice. Dirie (1998) is of the opinion that “Because of a ritual ignorance, most of the women on the continent of Africa live their lives in pain”. (p.349)

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On account of have been born female, Dirie is very worried and saw herself responsible to speak up about the female circumcision and to help the women in Africa. For all the women in her country who are silence, Dirie arranges the “Waris Dirie Foundation” which organizes a lot of worldwide projects and they are about to fight against the FGM. (Dirie, W. 2001) “I have started the Desert Dawn Foundation to raise money for schools and clinics in Somali”. They want to protect the women in Somalia and to stop the ignorant selfish men who demand their wives be circumcised. “And the legacy of pain, suffering, and death that results from it is more than enough reason for it to stop”. (Dirie, W. 1998, p. 360) That is the reason why Waris Dirie fights for the restraining order of the female genital mutilation. (p. 362- 369)

4. Conclusion

Waris Dirie who shows an amazing strength, experienced an inconceivably heavy life with difficult circumstances, customs, traditions and cultures depending on animals, the nature and the vegetation in the desert of Somalia. She suffered from dry weathers, famines, illnesses and at the age of about five years the curtailment. These are all situations which are foreign for the most of our society. Only because of her traditional culture she got a very strong and self- confident ability. That is why she got her life under control. Dirie persuades me with showing her lifelong strong will power.

The development and the discussion with the life of the nomads in the desert of Somalia, has shown me other sides of life by illustrating to me another culture. During further researches, I found out that even after the time of the clarification, there are tribes that still practice this FGM.

I recommend her untiring fight against the genital curtailment (compare App. p. 13, figure 4). In my opinion, Waris Dirie has succeeded delivering her message with help of the book „Desert of Flower”. She had drawn the attention and the interest of many people towards her homeland, their cultures, traditions and especially on the female genital mutilation or the compulsive marriage. She has also visualized under which circumstances the Somali nomads must live and how they master this life in a very unique way. I can definitely agree with Mire (2002) that “Women in Somalia are hard workers, and keep themselves engaged in a variety of roles from morning to night. The woman’s role is very important and when not fulfilled, the whole family suffers”. While writing my essay, I realized that women in Somalia are very much oppressed by their men in the everyday life. I am convinced that women in Somalia have no rights and they are not allowed in any decision making. They have to do everything their man tells them. I want to emphasize that they have neither influence on their agonizing circumcision nor on their marriage. Let me end by saying that the role of women in Somalia is not comparable with the relation between women and men in our society.



Dirie,W. (1998). Desert Flower, New York, NY

Web- sources

Althaus, F. (1997) Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights. Guttmacher Institute. Retrieved from http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2313097.html


Dirie, W. (2001) What is the Waris Dirie Foundation? Waris Dirie Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.waris-dirie-foundation.com/en/network/wp-content/myphotos/wuestenblume-szenenbilder-ii/Szenenbild_02jpeg_1400x937.jpg


Gibson, H. (2002) Somalia’s Desert Flower. Time in partnership with CNN. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901020715-300618,00.html


Mire, A. (2002) A Look at Women in Somalia. Taking it global. Retrieved from http://www.tigweb.org/express/panorama/article.html?ContentID=865



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