Punching the air with his fist, a Sudanese man strolled into the reception tent with his beautiful, bejeweled bride wearing fine red robes.
Women ululated and followed behind bearing incense, pots of tea, and a drum, while a band played Nile Valley songs from long ago and a sacrificial cow lay still on an adjacent grassy area, its feet tied and throat gouged open.
The event had all the traditional fanfare except the couple was one of 300 benefiting from a government-sponsored mass reception aimed at saving the grooms the cost of throwing their own elaborate parties.
"I'm very happy. I've finally managed to get married. It's a special day, especially because I've married the girl I want," 35-year-old customs officer Tareq Ali Beshir said, sitting next to his smiling 25-year-old wife Nadia.
With the civil war and economic crisis, it's hard for Sudanese man to marry these days, and officials here say they are increasingly organizing mass weddings to ensure the health and stability of this largely Islamic society.
The tough times have also put a twist in the traditions of the Dinka tribesmen and other non-Muslim people from the war-torn south who are now living in camps outside Khartoum, foreign aid workers and Sudanese say.
A southern farmer can now marry on the strength of a pledge he will one day deliver the bride price of 40 or so cows he had to leave behind, they said. The pledge is usually given to the bride's uncle, who represents the wider community.
Those from the more urban north bring money to the bride's father as well as clothes and furniture to the new home -- and those attending last week's bash received cash gifts from the customs department that would help toward that.
Some received as much as 1.5 million pounds (600 dollars) to help them get started in marital life.
There was a larger cause behind the good gestures.
"A man or a woman who is not married can commit sin. This is the reason behind the mass marriage," Brigadier Mubarak Bushra, a manager at the customs department, told AFP.
For Muslims, it is sinful to have sexual relations outside marriage.
Partygoers might have been reminded of the risks of promiscuous sex as many passed a sign that read, "National AIDS Control Program," posted on a fence outside the block of public buildings where the reception was held.
"All people have to get married to create a stable family and stable society," customs officer Yasir Abu Kasawi said while sitting next to his newlywed friends, Tareq and Nadia.
In the past Sudanese tended to hold their celebrations in the privacy of their homes, with friends and family, Abu Kasawi said. "But recently some financial difficulties forced the government to share these costs."
With the growing financial burden, men have been delaying marriage beyond the traditional cut-off date of 30 years old, he added. "Some people are waiting until 40 just to prepare the house and overcome difficulties."
Ali Beshir had an especially tough time because he was forced to support his five younger sisters and brother after their father died.
Nadia, who wore orange and black robes with henna tattoos on her hands, was a little reticent speaking to a foreign journalist.
"As God wishes," she replied when asked if she expected to have children right away or continue working as a lieutenant at the customs department.
Like the 299 others, the couple had arrived at the reception after being married at home by a Muslim cleric.
Mohammed el-Taum Hammed Azoz, a 28-year-old doctor, interviewed at a separate private reception at the Army Club over the weekend, does not expect to take part in a mass wedding party although marriage was not yet on his mind.
He needed to spend 4.5 million Sudanese pounds (1,800 dollars) to pay for a three-year program to specialize as a surgeon, and may have to set aside double that sum when he wants to get married.
Bushra, the customs official, said that public financing for weddings was also aimed at helping Sudan, the largest country in Africa with two million square kilometers (800,000 square miles), increase its relatively sparse population of 26 million people -- KHARTOUM (AFP)
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