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.

A Somali resident purchases a cell-phone handset at a shopping centre in Mogadishu, November 4, 2009. Somalia’s mobile phone business is booming despite the almost daily artillery fire that flies over expensive satellite dishes and the violence that has brought misery to the population of the Horn of Africa nation. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

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