Two Thousand Isles: Spirit of Saafu

Landfill in GDh Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Landfill in GDh Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

By Daniel Bosley

For as long as people have been visiting the Maldives, the same observations have been made. The turquoise ocean and friendly people still make every review, but earlier accounts never failed to mention the impeccable cleanliness of local villages as well as the superstition of their inhabitants.

Maintaining the pristine streets of the islands is harder than ever in 21st century Maldives. The amount of waste produced has grown massively, with the organic stuff now joined by plastics, metals and strange new foreign chemicals.

At the same time, belief in jinn, while still common, plays less of a role in the islands than it once did. Some people dismiss the old stories as unscientific and backwards, while others say the spirits have been outsmarted by the introduction of 24hr electric lighting in the last two decades.

Either way, there’s more junk and less jinn. Coincidence?

Landfill in GDh Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Landfill in GDh Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

It’s clear that many island folk tales, featuring local spirits – both good and bad, were once used for much more than just entertainment; though much like the pre-Disney Grimms’ fairy tales, the moral of the stories are often hidden behind gratuitous violence.

But much of the advice imparted in tales of jinn & friends would have benefited traditional island society: don’t go out to the beach alone in the dark, don’t give away secrets, don’t marry that strange woman you met in the forest with claws for feet…

…and don’t litter.

A woman on the beach of GA Dhevvadhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

A woman on the beach of GA Dhevvadhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

A number of folk tales involve jinn wreaking havoc after having garbage dumped onto the areas in which they live, or being urinated upon. It is said that islanders would traditionally call out a warning to lurking spirits before disposing of waste anywhere, shouting ‘gaikolhu gaigaa dhuru’, or ‘jeidhuru’ in Addu.

Similarly, jinn like the bimu dhaabbala (a fiery turtle-shaped spectre) in Gaafu Dhaalu Rathafandhoo are still sighted in unclean areas, prompting believers to keep all inhabited areas free from clutter. These jinn are almost always linked with sickness, thus providing a seemingly logical link between poor island waste management and disease (hygiene or ‘hi, jinn’).

Introducing new practices, such as taking refuse to the kuni koshi instead of the beach has proven to be tough. Elderly residents say it’s too far, while young ones have become accustomed to expatriate labourers cleaning up after them. Old habits die hard…or often not at all, in the case of the islands’ paranormal populace.

Landfill in GDh Rathafandhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Landfill in GDh Rathafandhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Maybe those tasked with keeping the islands clean should look to the past in order to clear up the problems of the present. Perhaps a ‘Supernatural Atoll Waste Management Consultant’ could help with awareness raising and community-based environmental initiatives.

In other words, put a few jinn on the payroll.


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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