A young girl, barely looking 15 years old, adorned in a shimmering golden outfit, ushers me into a beautiful villa located on spacious ground. Her name is Halima Hassan, the lady of the house.
By Kassim Mohamed
I am in Eyl, a small town in Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland. The people of this village used to earn a living by fishing, but now it is the epicentre of the infamous ship hijacking business. In a visible symbol of this shift, abandoned wooden boats adorn the sandy beaches while just 300 meters away are the flashy homes of the newly rich.
The house of Halima Hassan's pirate husband is one of them. “My husband is deeply involved in this piracy business,” she explains as her face lights up into a broad smile. “He’s 70 years old and we got married last year when I was 14.” Anticipating the next question, she goes on: “My parents have no money, that’s why I got married to him.”
A village elder confides to me: “I have been called upon many times to facilitate negotiations between pirates and parents. The pirates bring with them Khamis (a robe worn by Muslims), gold-coated walking sticks, perfumes, camels and money and other highly valued products.”
Nothing wrong with arranged marriage
According to the old man, piracy off the coast of Somalia has killed the area's moral fabric as beauty is being traded for money. “To meet the pirates' standards the girls must be extremely beautiful,” he says. “The more beautiful they are, the greater the prospects of getting a pirate husband and a greater reward for the parents.”
But Halima sees nothing wrong with how she was married off, or where the money comes from. “This is a good business,” she says pointing at two four-wheel-drive Toyota Prados parked in her spacious compound. “If it were not for piracy, where could I have got this? It’s a good business,” she says without any sense of irony.
Piracy not allowed
But not every pirate wife is comfortable with the lifestyle.
Twenty-four year old Fatuma lives just a short walk from Halima's villa. Her house is large but not as flashy as Halima’s. She is also married to a pirate. “Sometimes I ask myself what my children feed on, but there’s nothing I can do,” Fatuma says with an emotional voice. “Neither religion nor culture allows piracy, that’s why I think it’s bad.”
She thinks that her husband may have ventured into piracy before they got married in January 2007 but never told her as this could have sparked a feud between the young couple.
No way out of gilded cage
Though the fortunes from piracy trickle down to both Halima and Fatuma, their opinions on the practice are worlds apart. The relaxed Halima argues: “I think piracy should continue. I don’t want it to stop because I only depend on what my husband brings home. I’m not educated, and so he’s my only source of livelihood.”
Fatuma looks at her jewellery. “Yes I’ve got a lot of wealth including gold chains, but I just don’t want to live this kind of life.” But there is no escape. “I don’t have a way out,” says Fatuma holding her baby tightly.
While Halima clearly enjoys her lifestyle, Fatuma despises the gilded cage she now finds herself in.