MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali courtship was different in Hassan Aden’s day. When he was a teenager, you gave the girl’s parents 11 camels and an AK-47 assault rifle as bride price and then waited respectfully.
Now, the 55-year-old said, a mobile phone service that seems to be the only thing working in the failed Horn of Africa state is helping drive a rise in elopements, pregnancies out of marriage and a steady erosion of Somalia’s conservative values.
“The youth of today enjoy modern technology, fast transportation and free-of-charge marriages,” Aden, a store owner, told Reuters at a coffee shop in the capital Mogadishu.
“Today, even reasonable boys pay just $50 bride price and a copy of the holy Koran after making the girl pregnant or seeing her secretly for months.”
In a drought-ravaged land where rebels are trying to topple a fragile government, gun battles break out almost daily and nearly 20,000 civilians have been killed since the start of 2007, cheap mobile communications are one happy diversion.
The entrepreneurial spirit of Somalis, born out of two decades of anarchy, as well as an absence of taxes, have helped domestic mobile companies thrive despite the chaos.
Many older residents say the prevalence of handsets and such cheap tariffs -- among the lowest in the world -- is making the lives of youngsters unrecognizable. A month of local calls costs about $10. International calls can go for $0.30 a minute.
The cheap calls and extended mobile network in the Horn of Africa nation make it easier for Somalis to get in touch with willing partners and arrange quick assignations.
“ONLY LIFE WE HAVE”
Traditional Somali marriages used to be long-planned, intricately arranged affairs normally determined by clan and sub-clan elders. But some now prefer a less formal kind of marriage, which is essentially elopement, because they do not have the economic means to face a prospective father-in-law.
Bile Farah, 25, said marriages nowadays have become more of an “entertainment.”
“I don’t think I’d be sane if it were not for the ‘Qudbasiro’, free-of-charge secret marriages,” the unemployed secondary school graduate told Reuters, sitting cross-legged on a ragged mattress and sending a text message with his phone.
“I’ve divorced nine women already. Voluntary brides and cheap phone services -- it is the only life we have.”
Unsurprisingly, such behavior is frowned upon by hardline Islamist al Shabaab insurgents who rule over much of central and southern Somalia and want to impose their own austere version of Sharia law on the whole country.
They have banned elopement in the areas under their control. But for Halima Osman, a Mogadishu mother-of-three, the mobile phone helped her run away with the love of her life.
“I am very proud. I would not have these three kids if it were not for the cheap calls and elopement,” the 20-year-old told Reuters, covering her face with a scarf.
She said her sister lived a “dog’s life” being beaten for seven years after being married to an old man against her will.
“She suffered. But you can just dial a number or pick up a ringing phone. You make an appointment then elope. Life is so easy if you are lucky.”
Aden, the shop owner, said he was shocked when his own daughter eloped and gave birth to a child with a young man he had never met. But he also had a confession.
“I enjoy this lifestyle myself, to some extent,” he said.
Apart from an older wife in a “far away” region, he said he had three younger spouses in the capital: one through an arranged marriage and the other two “secretly.”
“I call them day wives, because we usually have to meet discreetly during the daytime -- the other one will take it out on the children if I’m missing from her nightly roll call,” he said.
“But the recent insecurity has favored us. You hear gunfire -- and you have an excuse to be absent.”
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