The first time I interviewed anyone, it was the model Waris Dirie. The venue was the BMG building just off Time Square; all lights, bustle and money, money, money. We must have been close to the top floor; the view across the New York night skyline was incredible and I couldn’t help but wonder how many times music executives like Sean Combs had been up here in and out of business meetings with their bosses.
Tonight however was to be a night of pleasure, a function organised by the NGO Equality Now celebrating the lifetime contributions of Gloria Steinem and my mother, Efua Dorkenoo, to the pursuit of women’s rights. I was surrounded by some of the hardest working people in human rights today but being the superficial boy I was at heart, I was soon scanning the room urgently in search of something, anything to look at:
She walked in and caught my eye immediately. Wearing loose brown trousers, a figure-hugging white cotton blouse, a yellow silk scarf tied sideways around her neck and a purple straw hat, you could tell the lady had a way around a wardrobe. I tried catching a glimpse of her face from under the shadow of her hat. As I did I was immediately struck by the experience betrayed there and for a split-second I wondered if she was as young as she seemed. Later on we were introduced and, along with my brother and the poet Sarah Jones, we chatted until the night came to a close. As people started saying their goodbyes, she turned to me and gave me the warmest hug. When I asked her if it was an East African thing, she looked at me and smiled. “No” she corrected me; “it’s an African thing”. That was my first time meeting Waris.
Meeting her again was all sorts of drama. A fashion shoot clashed with a previous engagement. Then her favourite Turkish baths were all booked up. Eventually she invited my family to her Brooklyn apartment, promising to cook us up a storm. Inside, the paint, ladders and cloth over furniture said she had just moved in but you could already tell how simply she was going to decorate the place. No marble floors, gold taps and encased enlargements of photos from old fashion shoots. Just plenty of books, shoes, some African art and a box of CDs lying in the corner on the wooden floor. Most might think that this is simple living for a supermodel but Waris’ background is not like that of most of her colleagues.
Born into a tribe of nomadic Somalian herders, she spent the first years of her life moving from place to place in the desert- a far cry from life in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Ask Waris when her birthday is and she will tell you she doesn’t know exactly. It was more efficient for her people to base their movements and daily lives around the seasons and activity of the Sun, crucial factors behind the growth of plant-life the herds needed to graze on. Daily life, she says, was hard. As a little girl she “had to build pens, milk the cattle and lead over sixty sheep and goats out into the desert everyday to graze”. Around the age of thirteen she left her family for the first time, running away barefoot to Mogadishu to avoid being married off by her father. Living with family there she worked as a servant and a construction worker before grabbing an opportunity to be a maidservant for her uncle-in-law, the Somali ambassador in London.
Arriving in London she had no knowledge of English and was too busy working to find any time to learn. It was in performing one of her tasks, taking her young niece to school, that a photographer whom she thought of as “this strange man who would stare at me all the time” spotted her. He one day gave her his card and a few years later, when her uncle’s term had come to an end and she was out of a job, she went to see him. He was a photographer and the photo he took of her was to be her first in a career starting with appearances in music videos and leading eventually to Revlon adverts alongside Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. To date Waris has graced the covers of most if not all of the big fashion magazines and her biography ‘Desert Flower’ has been a bestseller in bookstores the world over. This desert girl has come a long way.
I asked her what life is like being an African in the modelling business and whether other African models she met were competitive or warm towards her. “When you are out there and you meet different people, you’ll quickly know who is African and who isn’t. There’s a warmth and a vibe around them, and when we see each other we say hi and all that, it’s just different. To be black in this industry is to be the future. We have a new look and everyone is tired of seeing the same old faces. We are the future, just like in music”.
I had gone through her CD box earlier to find a pretty impressive collection. Starting us off with the Gypsy Kings, by the time the food was ready we were listening to Zap Mama and D’Angelo. She described music as being ‘like water and breathe to her’, so I asked her if she would ever consider singing, like Naomi did some years back. She starts laughing.
“I would love to be Sade! They don’t play that kind of music on TV anymore” she laments. “It’s all so mainstream. It would be nice to have a channel playing music from the world over. I’d do it myself if I could. I’d love to do a TV show”. I ask if she’s serious. “Yeah, that would be wicked! You just watch. One of these days I am going to come to London and do a TV show. Maybe some acting too. As long as I have control”.
Control is something very important to Waris and it comes up in our conversation again and again. Lack of control over what she is doing is something she says will eventually lead her away from fashion and modelling. I point out that earning enough money to lead a comfortable semi-bohemian lifestyle in a new Brooklyn apartment can’t be such a bad thing, to which she responds that she doesn’t really like it in New York. “I find it too fast, too superficial, there is something selfish about the place. I would love to move to London… Brixton, yeah… or somewhere simple in North London. I remember London. I used to be on one of the train-routes all the time, the grey one… yeah, the Jubilee Line”. She recounts to me the experience of being stalked all the way home by an insistent admirer she bumped into on the line once, before she became a model: “Anonymity would not be a bad thing”. When I ask her if there is anywhere in the world she would like to go to that her career has not yet taken her, she replies without hesitating, “Thailand. It looks so beautiful and very natural. I love nature and animals. I grew up around it. It reminds me of home”.
Somalia is in the news. A famine is sweeping across the horn of Africa and many thousands of people are dying. I ask her if she ever thinks of going back, perhaps to give her four-year-old son, Aleeke (asleep in the next room), a taste of home.
“I feel so helpless (about the famine), like I should be there. I do want to go back… although I have been warned that I could be kidnapped and maybe even killed”. Waris has suffered something known as female circumcision, or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), that is practised not just in parts of Africa but across the world including the West. In one of its worse forms, young girls are forced to undergo gruesome coming-of-age ceremonies in which parts of their external genitalia, including the clitoris, are cut out (using a sharp, hot stone or a knife); vaginas sewn up leaving a small hole through which to urinate. Some years ago an operation took away a lot of the pain, but the damage is irreparable and Waris will never be able to truly appreciate the pleasures of sex.
Today she is a Special Ambassador for the United Nation, and the face of its campaign against FGM. She says the response has been nothing short of inspiring, “… nothing but love. I have received letters from so many people thanking me for speaking out about it”.
On the other hand there are those who displeased by her candour. Hers are a very private people and even those who agree that FGM is a malpractice feel that she should not air their dirty linen in public: “I am not ashamed about it and I am not ashamed to speak about it, though some others are” she says exasperated. “Besides the ones talking are usually men and they can’t know what they are talking about because they are not the ones who have to feel it”.
I wondered what she thought about men on the whole. She smiled at me and said “I just don’t have time for men right now. Sorry… maybe later!”. She paused for a second, and then she laughed. I reckoned she was bluffing, but the meal was ready. It smelled great:
The interview was over.