Africa's growing, expensive Valentine culture

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Overlooking the azure waters of the Indian Ocean is a stylish upmarket restaurant that stands on the powder-white beaches.

Overlooking the azure waters of the Indian Ocean is a stylish upmarket restaurant that stands on the powder-white beaches.

MOGADISHU - Overlooking the azure waters of the Indian Ocean is a stylish upmarket restaurant that stands on the powder-white beaches.

Couples hold hands and stroll barefooted as a group of children plays volleyball.

A number of European adventurers wade into the water to snorkel.

This is the trendy Lido Beach, found in one of the most dangerous cities in the world: Mogadishu, Somalia's volatile capital.

It is here that Nur Abdi, a 27-year-old Somali-American, intends to spend Valentine's Day, which falls on February 14 of each year.

Abdi was raised in Minnesota, USA, but, like many Somalis in the diaspora, returned home in 2013 to manage his family business after a measure of normalcy was restored to his native country – which has not known peace for the last two decades.

"This will be my first Valentine's Day in Somalia and I plan to spend it with my fiancé at Lido Beach," he told Anadolu Agency.

"Valentine's Day is almost unknown here; it's even frowned upon by some," said Abdi.

"I grew up celebrating [Valentine's Day] back in the US," he recalled. "This year will be a bit different as I mark the occasion in Somalia."

Indeed, certain manifestations of Western culture are frowned upon in this majority-Muslim country, but many Somalis who have returned from abroad have nevertheless adopted Western lifestyles.

One popular Somali website is advertising a Valentine's Day party in Toronto, Canada featuring a guest performance by Hassan Samatar, Somalia's most popular musician.

"One thing's for sure – there won't be any red roses or red dresses here [in Somalia]," said Abdi.

"It won't be a lovers' parade like it is in the west," he added. "We're a conservative society where public displays of affection are a no-no."

-Expensive-

Only five years ago, Valentine's Day was all but unknown here. Today, it has become part of life for many urban East Africans.

According to the Nairobi-based Ipsos Synovate think tank, 49 percent of Kenyans plan to celebrate Valentine's Day this year.

The numbers are higher in Uganda, where, according to the poll, 65 percent said they would mark the occasion.

In Kenyan capital Nairobi, the streets of East Africa's largest city have literally been turned red for the holiday.

Florists hawk red roses, shops display lavish red dresses and restaurants advertise Valentine's Day dinner offers.

But tough economic conditions and limited personal finances are some of the reasons why not everyone will be celebrating Valentine's Day in Kenya.

"I had plans for a Valentine's weekend on the coast, but with the high cost of living, my wife and I are thinking of just having a romantic dinner at home," Mark Mulwa, a Kenyan in his fourth year of marriage, told AA.

"So much money was spent in January, clearing car loan debts and mortgages," he lamented.

Willis Odhiambo, a 52-year-old father of six, voices similar sentiments.

"Celebrating Valentine's Day is an expensive affair," he told AA. "It's misplacing priorities."

"I should be thinking about putting more food on the table for my family, clearing the college arrears for my daughter, and saving some money to develop a recent land purchase," he added.

But Yusufu Bakari, a Ugandan national, has a different reason for not cerebrating Valentine's Day.

"I believe showing affection for someone special isn't just a one-day affair," he told AA. "I can show love all year through. This is just too Western for Africans to be celebrating."

People may be divided on their view of Valentine's Day, but for the governments of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia, Valentine season means a steady influx of foreign currency.

The day's most popular gift is cut flowers. The four countries, led by Kenya, represent the world's leading exporters of cut flowers.

"There's a demand of up to $50 billion worth of flowers this year," Muigai Mukuria of the Kenya Chamber of Commerce told AA. "The demand is even higher during Valentine's."

"Kenya, the leading [cut flower] exporter in the world, is expected to make up to $550 million," said Mukuria.

Back in Mogadishu, business operators hope to make thousands of dollars on Valentine's Day.

Most of those who will flock to Lido Beach are foreign expatriates and Somalis from the diaspora.

Security is expected to be beefed up at the beach for the day.

"It's a city with a reputation for changing in a matter of seconds," Abdi asserted.

"We're always on the watch, even when we make merry," he added – and for good reason.

At least seven people were killed in a bomb attack on the eve of Valentine's Day, later claimed by the notorious Al-Shabaab militant group.

Al-Shabaab has been known in the past to launch attacks on festival days that they perceive to be unIslamic or "Western," like Valentine's Day.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency