Frank Burnaby and his wife Gayle, a young and adventurous American couple, were sailing around the world when the cyclone season veered them south of the Arabian Sea. Consulting his charts, Frank spotted the Maldives to the East, and instead set course towards the island nation. The couple arrived at Thulhaadhoo, in Baa Atoll, on October 22, 1976. Frank’s brother John had sailed with them and it turned out to be his birthday.
“The best birthday [John] ever had, he said, after 41 days at sea”, Frank narrated.
The couple had taken their boat to Ahmed Adam’s shipyard in capital Male’ when they discovered Gayle was pregnant. However, they did not want to abandon the island nation that they felt “was a dream come true” and return to the States.
Realising that the intuition leading them towards the simplicity of island life lay right in front of them in the natural beauty that surrounds Maldives, the couple sailed on to Kudafolhudhoo in Alif Alif Atoll.
“We anchored our boat and Moosabey, the elder on Bodufolhudhoo, came standing in his boat rowed by two young boys. He looked like a Pharaoh from Egypt, so proud and strong. He owned Kudafolhudhoo.”
According to Frank, the island of Kudafolhudhoo was gifted to Moosabey by the last Sultan for his services in the field of medicine.
With the help of Ali Shareef, a young Maldivian man who translated for the couple, they discussed whether Gayle could deliver her baby on the island. Moosabey proceeded to agree to allow the couple to have their baby and live on Kudafolhudhoo, even sending men from Bodufolhudhoo to build a home for them to reside in.
“They built us a beautiful coral rock and thatch house. We had dug a well but it was a bit salty, so we caught rainwater.”
Soon after they moved to the island, the couple welcomed their first child, a healthy baby boy named ‘Dhon Kokko’ which loosely translates in Dhivehi to 'fair little child'.
“Moosabey even hurried over to offer his help, but we wanted privacy, and had our son completely alone together. Just like the islanders did on Bodufolhudhoo.”
Frank spoke earnestly of the beautiful island scenes, the close-knit community, and the easy freedom of living in the isles.
“We fell in love with your life in the islands in 1976. We saw your children playing from house to house. We did not know whose children belonged to whom. All the doors were open. Everyone took care of the children. Everyone took care of each other.”
Despite the language barrier, Frank felt that the bonds formed between him and islanders were deep and meaningful. Recalling an incident where upon seeing Frank coughing and struggling in thick smoke during an attempt to bake a pineapple cake with Gayle, Moosabey took Frank into the forest and showed him large seed pods on a palm tree. The pods ignited fast, producing a significant flame with little to no smoke induced.
“Many times like this, words were not needed to understand each other.”
Frank narrated that the island community took very good care of them, bringing whatever fresh food they had to share, including papayas, bananas, eggs and local delicacies like coconut honey.
Relaying a fond memory concerning Moosabey, Frank said, “... he loved to play chess with me, but he did not like to lose. I had to let him win a lot, or he would not come. So, he visited very often and we played chess on our front porch and drank milk tea.”
The island folk taught these curious wanderers how to live and adjust to Maldivian lifestyle, teaching them many truths that are only known to those native to the tropics, from how to find wild dandelion greens to igniting safer fires with the coconut pods. Moosabey passed some of his extensive knowledge about the dhonis (traditional boats) that the skilled Thulhadhoo islanders had built for them.
“We sat in our boats down at the shore, tying on our oars and sharing boat skills. Every time Abdullah came to visit, he would climb coconut palms and bring us Kurumba (coconuts).”
The small family discovered a certain serenity and peacefulness in the simple island life that was freeing beyond anything they had experienced before.
Watching the fisherman set out for their tuna catch every day, gave Frank a particular joy.
“The sea was full of sails”, Frank wrote, “... children learned and worked with their families, young men fishing with their fathers, women teaching their daughters skills.”
“I remember young boys at the metal forge with Moosabey working the billows and learning how to make new knives.”
There was a charm about the islands and the lifestyle that took strong root in the couple’s hearts.
“Gayle and I felt we had found a dream we had in our hearts, for feeling at home. We did not feel that way in Los Angeles or anywhere else we had ever been.”
Having called Kudafolhudhoo home for a little over a year, the family bid adieu to the delicate shores of the low-lying island nation in 1977, after the news of Frank’s father’s illness called them back to the United States.
“[Moosabey] waved his hand at the horizon and asked ‘Dhanee?’ [Are you leaving?]). That was one of the most difficult moments in my life - looking into his eyes, as our boat pulled away from shore.”
Maldivians will forever treasure the stories of Frank and Dhon Kokko as a memoir depicting the quintessential life of islanders prior to the wave of urbanization and technology that beached on to our shores.
One could argue that the rest of the world came for Maldives too soon, and as we stepped out from the comfort of our past into the complex and inevitable connectivity that will lead us to the future, we as a country have struggled and continue to struggle, to hold on to and perhaps revive, what remains of our heritage and culture.