Marriage over the phone thrives among Somali community

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 26 -- The bride, 19-year-old Khatra Haret, made her way down the aisle, but there was no groom to meet her. The only people waiting by the podium are bridesmaids and a few female relatives.

It's a far cry from a traditional Somali wedding, which is usually long and intricately planned, with an array of activities that stretch over a seven-day period. Marked with pomp and pageantry, the festivities are held at the bride's home, and are designed to display the host's hospitality, warmth and culinary skills - all considered pivotal in Somali culture.

But Haret's is a modern-day Muslim marriage. With increasingly cheap cellular technology combined with a seemingly unending humanitarian crisis in Somali, a growing number of Somalis are how phoning their way down the aisle.

All the details of Haret's wedding,including the marriage proposal, the acceptance and even the dowry payment, were done via phone, Haret said, without her knowledge.

Haret said her mother, Kusa Onle, spent three days planning the ceremony with the groom's family, before Haret was even told what was going on. Over the course of just 11 days, Haret said, her dream of studying sociology at a local university was dashed. Now, she said, her biggest worry is how she will manage a marriage to a 46-year-old cleric who lives in Canada.

Haret and her family settled in Nairobi in 2001 after fleeing war in Somalia.

There has been a surge in "phone marriages" in Somali communities in the recent years. As more Somali men leave Africa to find work abroad, unmarried young women become financial liabilities for their parents. In most phone marriage cases, parents marry their daughters off to supplement their income, as long as their daughters remain in their homes.

The men often spend three-quarters of the year overseas. Some are in constant communication with their in-laws, and send regular remittances to help pay the bills. Many men dream of building up a savings account that will one day fund a new business at home in Africa.

Most phone marriages are facilitated by families - including supervision by a hawk-eyed mother of the bride - who want an economic gain. The groom follows the order of events, thousands of miles away, from the comfort of his own home.

As a long-simmering humanitarian crisis continues in Somalia, suitors who live abroad are welcomed by families as a steady source of income, even by families who live in neighboring Kenya.

The legality of the union is guaranteed when the families observe a set of conditions, including the presence of two witnesses and the bride's father, and the payment of a dowry, said Mohammed Swalihu, an imam at Jamia mosque in Nairobi.

Swalihu, whose office issues marriage certificates, added that a representative of the groom should be present to oversee the engagement ceremony.

“Should the three elements be observed, the marriage becomes legal and binding,” he said. “The contract does not have to be written. It can be verbal and will have the full force of (Islamic law)."

Right now, Swalihu said, his mosque is asked to register about eight phone marriages every month. He expects that number to increase.

“The procedure is cost-effective for the groom in the current economic crisis and many people are taking up this new phenomenon to escape unnecessary expenses and cost,” said Abdul Qani, who married the mother of his twin boys when he was in London two years ago. The ceremony took place via telephone.

Even among the poorest Somali refugees, phone marriages are becoming more popular. About 350,000 Somali refugees live at Kenya's squalid Dadaab refugee camp, said Emmanuel Nyabera, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Mohammed Abdi-Odhowa, a 54-year-old refugee based in Dadaab, said cheap mobile phones make it easy to communicate across continents.

"As an elder, I was was once called to witness (an) engagement ceremony over the phone," Odhowa said.

Odhowa said he was startled at first, but then realized that phone marriages are an effective way for Somalis to work around the realities of economic hardship.

Even so, Haret said, success stories are rare. Suspicions of infidelity quickly set in because of the distance.

On the day of her wedding, Haret solemnly held her bouquet of flowers and gazed and the pile of gifts laid before her.

She said she doesn't believe her union will prosper.

“I’m literally being sold out,” she said.

As she left the rented hall, an entourage of women sang about the marital bliss ahead of her.