Waris Dirie was born into a family of nomads in a Somalian desert. Growing up, she was privileged to run free with nature’s most majestic animals, and learned a respect for nature that many of us as Americans could never fathom. However, these thrills are just on the surface of what life is really like for African women. She suffered through intense traditional mutilation in her childhood, and endless hours of hard labor in the fields everyday. At the age of 13, she ran away to escape the marriage that her father had arranged for her to a sixty-year-old man in exchange for five camels. She left with nothing but the swaddling clothes on her back not even shoes to protect her feet from the scorching African sun. Her journey on foot went on for weeks, until she found her sister, who had also ran away five years earlier for the same reasons. After getting reacquainted with an aunt and her ambassador husband, Waris moved to England with them. When her uncle’s term was up, she stayed in England where a photographer, who eventually put her on the cover many major magazines, discovered her. In describing her remarkable journey through life, Waris demonstrates examples of a masculine culture with elements high uncertainty-avoidance, and her own individualism amongst such a collectivistic society.
Waris’s description of life in Africa is a perfect definition for a masculine culture. She explains, “Women are the backbone of Africa; they do most of the work. Yet women are powerless to make decisions.” She recalls a story of how her loving mother permitted her to be butchered, because of a traditional African ritual to please African men. When she was five years old, her mother made her an appointment to meet with “the gypsy women.” Waris didn’t know exactly what this meant, but it was supposedly an exciting moment in the lives of young African girls, and when they returned, they were considered women. Waris recalls in graphic detail being bound and blind-folded by her mother while the gypsy women sliced between her legs repeatedly, then sewed her up, leaving a whole the size of a match-head. She was then drug off to a shelter under a bush where she spent weeks alone to recuperate. Sadly, this is not an isolated case, millions of nomadic cultures still perform the ritual, and many young girls do not survive the surgery. All this is done to ensure that African women will not be promiscuous, for after the surgery, sex is extremely painful for them. African men want a wife who has had the surgery because the tiny whole brings more pleasure to them, and so the women suffer through this to please the men. African mothers do what they can to ensure a wedding for their daughters, because there is no place in society for an unmarried woman.
The Somalian culture in which Waris was raised showed many aspects of a high-uncertainty avoidance culture. The world today contains incredible technology, yet her people still live in the same manner as their ancestors thousands of years ago. Their society has stayed virtually unchanged, and not because of chance, but choice. This avoidance is demonstrated by Waris’s translator at one point in her life. After finally coming clean with her doctor about the reason she had such intolerable periods in which she could not function for seven days, he insisted that she get the circumcision from her childhood reversed as soon as possible. To discuss the details of the operation, the doctor hired a translator, for her English was not yet fluent. To her dismay, the translator was a Somalian male who scorned her about going against their custom. He was offended that Waris would deviate from the tradition, regardless of the pain that she experienced because of it. He didn’t question that the procedure was inappropriate, just accepted it as culture. This is why the rules and rituals in that society have remained the same for so many years; they are not questioned, just followed. The people have faith that these practices are right under God, and therefor they continue.
Regardless of her strictly collectivistic upbringing, Waris throughout her life demonstrated her own individualism. First, by running away to avoid marriage. Though her family would benefit from her marriage, she knew it would not make her happy. She stood up for herself, and ran away to start a new life. After enduring years of urinating drop at a time and unbearable menstruation periods, Waris acted independently and went to the doctor. The translator’s comments, as I mentioned earlier, made her think twice. Despite her doubts, she had the surgery; she writes, “there’s no way to explain what a freedom that was.” Later, Waris sought out her mother in Somalia after years of separation. Her mother wasn’t sure about Waris’s new way of life, but was most adamant about the fact that she was not married. Waris expressed her individualistic views by remarking, ” Mama, do I have to be married? Don’t you want to see me a success-strong and independent?” This is an idea her mother had probably not ever entertained; she didn’t question their culture as Waris did. She just responded with “Well, I want grandchildren.” Waris’s individualism may be looked at as rebellion or selfish. Whichever way it is viewed, her independent nature is a key factor in how she ended up a successful woman.
Waris’s story also demonstrates a collective culture. When writing about her life growing up, she mentions “my life had been built around nature and family.” Waris was always tending to the crop of watching the goats to ensure that the family had food. Everything that was done was done for the good of the family and everyone was expected to act unselfishly. She mentions that none of her family members, including herself, have any idea how old they are. In a society that throws huge celebrations when someone turns a year older, and almost everything is based on age, this is “weird” to us as Americans. However, it is completely normal for them, because they are not preoccupied with “I”. Americans worry about age because they long for more independence. For example: when we can drive, legally leave home, drink, or vote. None of these issues are of any importance to Africans because they are only concerned with what will be good for the family unit. Regardless of the pain Waris’s mother felt for her daughter as she underwent the circumcision, she permitted it because of her collectivism, a feeling of obligation and loyalty to the group. This is an example of how collectivistic cultures put the needs of the group above the needs of the individual.
Today, Waris bravely and openly speaks about such private rituals as the circumcisions. Her friends are afraid that an angry nomad might seek her out and kill her for speaking of the holy practice, yet she continues in hopes that one day it will become a thing of the past. Before reading this article, I could never imagine that something so gruesome is still going on somewhere today. Living in a society so opposite to Africa’s, a lot of the issues presented in the article were new to me, and I did learn a lot. Most of all a respect for African women, who demonstrate incredible loyalty, unselfishness, and strength by living in pain, for the sake of tradition. I think what Waris is making a valiant effort, yet I have to wonder how much good it will do. The practice has been going on for thousands of years, and she cannot possibly change the minds of millions of people who so strongly believe in the traditions. However, if she changes the minds of just one, then the life of a young girl might be saved.