Two Thousand Isles: Atoll Outlook

Aerial view of Horizon Fisheries Complex and Chinese flats, G.Dh. Hoandedhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Aerial view of Horizon Fisheries Complex and Chinese flats, G.Dh. Hoandedhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

By Daniel Bosley

So, after completing our trip around Fuvahmulah and Huvadhu, we find ourselves back in Addu. Little seems to have changed, though I definitely remember there being a ginormous dhon dheeni opposite the Gan causeway before.

But what about the rest of the country? Does that still look the same?

One of my main goals during this project is to fill out my understanding of the Maldives a bit, after having previously veered mainly between Male’ and the resorts – the dystopia and the utopia. (I’m not saying which is which – for some, paradise is a post office, library, and tertiary health care.)

The past months have definitely been a great start in trying to understand how life looks from inside the atolls.

First impressions are telling. When I’m on the smaller islands, I’m normally described – particularly by kids – as a ‘guest’, even on islands without a guest house…I kind of like that, though I wonder what they would have called me before tourism came along.

Street scene, G.Dh. Nadellaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Street scene, G.Dh. Nadellaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Even without much Wi-Fi, news travels fast and privacy is something that people do elsewhere, so everyone will know who you are and what you’re doing within 24 hours. I’m never quite sure if people would be as bold if they thought I understood what they were saying; I don’t really…’something something dhonbe’, ‘something something venemeehaa?’, ‘something something asluves?’

Tharaggee

More broadly speaking, the relaxed atmosphere on most islands gives the impression from outside that things haven’t changed for many years. But most adults on most islands we visited are in fact able to recall the days before their modern harbour, plumbing and 24hr electricity – all of which seem to have arrived only in the past two decades.

Things are actually changing fast, and this was one of the reasons we wanted to start the project; to explore the almost unassailable gap that is opening between the city and the atolls, and between the (not that) old and the young. Grandmothers making illoshi fathi or rihaakuru as their grandkids play with tablet computers and gaze at flat screen TVs makes you wonder how island society will develop over the next twenty years.

After the first part of our journey, this amorphous issue of ‘development’ – a word used so often by politicians that tharaggee kuran may have been the first Dhivehi phrase I learned – has taken on a more definite shape. While in Male’ it’s become synonymous with showpiece projects like parks, running tracks, high-rise buildings, and the bridge; out in the atolls the seemingly never-ending number of government projects have far more impact.

Reclamation work at G.Dh. Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Reclamation work at G.Dh. Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Better harbours, transport links, ice plants, water and sewerage facilities make less interesting headlines, but can drastically alter life in such small communities, literally changing the landscape of lives. Understanding this precarious and dependent reality of island life is still fundamental to understanding the Maldives. (It’s a good job Grandma can still basically rebuild civilisation with a palm tree).

Reliable transport links take on a new importance as islands trade traditional self-sufficiency for engagement with the wider world. MTCC ferries were convenient enough for us to take a leisurely tour of the islands, but they’re not great for anyone on a tight schedule. You could be waiting three days if you miss your ride. While owning a boat is not quite enough to make you katheeb nowadays, it will still ensure you have a lot of people who want to buy you a coffee, or fifty (hiring a boat is expensive).

Coffee, cash, complex

But there aren’t always places to go for coffee. Male’s development has exactly created a buzzing social scene just yet, but its café-culture at least helps people pass the time. Without even a hotaa on many islands, the harbour front joali and holhuashi remain the place for – normally older and normally male – islanders to see and be seen.

I’d assumed, wrongly, that little café’s would be profitable businesses on even the smaller islands. One of the problems seems to be the general lack of cash on smaller islands. Huvadhu currently has a total of two functioning ATMs at the moment, and coffee on credit seems a poor business model. This, along with a general lack of young people, who are forced to leave to pursue further education and work, gives a clue as to why private businesses are nonexistent on many islands.

ATM under construction at G.Dh. Faresmaathodaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

ATM under construction at G.Dh. Faresmaathodaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

For those who stay, job prospects rarely extend beyond fishing and the civil service. Again, this is something I was aware of before we arrived, but have now had a closer view of the wider implications on local people – particularly on their political freedoms. Affiliating yourself with the wrong party can mean your job at the health centre/court/council office, and the alternatives are sparse.

Conversely, fishermen seem to have more freedom to fly whichever flags they choose and they have more cash to spend. As the last bastion of independence in the atolls, and as I wrote about last month, it is their stories (and grandma’s, obviously) that promise to reveal the most about modern life in the atolls.

So, after just a couple of months spent in the islands, the country is already starting to look very different, taking on new complexity; as this random assortment of thoughts might indicate.

But let’s hope the Gan causeway starts to look a little more familiar soon, just so we know when we’re home. #SaveDhonDheeni


Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.

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