(First published in South Africa's Mail and Guardian)
My friend Thomas Alo had two problems. Though he had been friends with Juliet, a colleague, for years, he hadn't had the guts to tell her that he loved her and wanted to marry her. His second problem was that he had refused to buy a cellphone. One day, I sat him down and told him that if he had a phone his problems with Juliet would be over. He asked me how. I told him that he could send her a text message, telling her he loved her and wanted to marry her. He said love affairs were not conducted through text messages.
Later I put pressure on him for a while; he eventually decided to act on my advice and went to buy a cellphone. Rather than face Juliet, who worked in the same office as him, he sent her an SMS declaring his feelings and requesting a date.
Thomas had thought she wouldn't reply, but she did. After three days of exchanging text messages, she agreed to a date. Three months later, Thomas proposed, not directly, but through an SMS. Last December, at the grand old age of 38, Thomas took Juliet to the altar and they were married.
Here in Nigeria, text messages have come to define the nature of romance. Young men and women search for soulmates and marriage partners through radio programmes such as The Matchmakers every Saturday. The host reads on air the SMSes sent in by listeners: "Murphy (30) civil servant, wants a young, well-behaved girl for marriage. She must be between 22 and 24, God-fearing, Benin by tribe, beautiful, dutiful, ready to settle down, 5 to 6ft tall, slim, educated, have a well-paying job and must be a good Christian."
Newspapers are another popular vehicle for lonely-hearts text messages. You can also SMS your love problems to a newspaper's relationships' counsellor for advice.
Young women carried away by the performances of Nollywood actors send their favourite stars hot text messages. Many a Nollywood actor has complained that their marriages are put under pressure as a result of their wives reading the messages sent by female fans.
Greeting-card sellers who once did a roaring trade during festive periods are also complaining because young lovers and friends no longer buy their ready-made love notes, preferring text messages.
SMSes have another, less happy Cupid's role: they provide clues that lovers use to detect whether their partners are cheating on them. Suspicious partners simply pick up their mates' cellphones, which -- unlike old-fashioned love lettersare not hidden or locked up -- and read their text messages.
Others have seen a business opportunity: they write books and pamphlets suggesting romantic words that lovers can use in their SMSes. One such entrepreneur is Femi Emmanuel, who wrote Touching the Heart through Unforgettable Text Messages. A suggested message reads: "H for Happiness, O for Orderliness, N for Natural Woman, E for Everything and Y for Yuletide. HONEY! You're my honey forever and ever."
Still others coin sexy words for text messages, post them on websites and invite people to make free use of them.
A typical message reads: "Did u dream of me touching u last night? … I dream of u here with me with nothing on but our imagination … Can u come over here and give me a good rubdown?"
Some old-fashioned people complain that text messages are transient, too casual and can't be kept. One man told me he still had a love letter his wife sent him 30 years ago. But for millions of mobile-crazed young Nigerians, text messages are the new currency of romance.
Adetokunbo Abiola, a prize-winning journalist, works at the Hope newspaper in Akure, Nigeria