By Daniel Bosley
Since leaving Thinadhoo just over a week ago, we've visited [checks diary] four more islands as we make our way anti-clockwise around Huvadhu. Seeing so many places in such a short period creates the impression of having visited one large community, similar to how the 86 islands on this section of the reef (farebithu) are so close as to seem, from some angles, like one long piece of land.
Just as with any larger community in any country, the atoll has its affluent neighbourhoods and other more run-down areas; capitals and backwaters. But unlike most other towns, a struggling district in a comparatively isolated atoll community faces little prospect of future regeneration or gentrification. When people start to leave their home islands, do they ever come back?
Having passed through Madaveli, Hoandedhdhoo, and Nadellaa, this week’s article is written from Rathafandhoo, the least populated island in Gaafu Dhaalu. On every island we've visited, barring Villingili and Thinadhoo, the rough rule of thumb is that the resident population is about two thirds of those officially registered there (voting population), with most absentees to be found in Male’. But in Rathafandhoo (population 550 at the last census), those who have left are now thought to outnumber those who stayed.
Why Rathafandhoo seems to have been worse affected by the urban migration of recent years is hard to know for sure. But then again, the raison d’etre of many of the Maldives island communities is not always obvious. Out of just over a thousand islands, people are currently settled on 197. But why these places were chosen, and why many others have been populated and then permanently abandoned is less obvious.
(This kind of existential question is also quite difficult to pose: 'Hey, we're new in town. What are you all doing here?’).
Finding a ‘fushi
The archipelago’s early settlers seem to have chosen islands based largely on geographic features: potable water, good access to the ocean, passing trade, arable land, a natural harbour, access to bait fish, etc. Examination of island names today shows that many of these functional names remain (i.e. Fenfushi - island with drinking water). The subsequent reasons for desertion, though often vaguely recollected, have ranged from environmental catastrophes and plagues to hauntings and invasion.
In modern times, however, people seem to be lured away from smaller communities by ambitions for newer standards of living, rather than being pushed out by fear of impending death (though better medical care is a major pull factor). Any ambitious 16-year-old on a smaller island has to leave home to pursue further education, often accompanied by the whole family. Unless they want one of their island's few dozen local government jobs, or to fish, they have little incentive to return (other than to escape Male’s profiteering landlords).
During this tour of Huvadhu we've already seen islands in various stages of development or decline; from GDh Thinadhoo, which has clearly been earmarked as a regional hub, through to GA Kondey, depopulated once already last century and now with fewer than 300 people. Further along the spectrum, the ghost-town of GA Diyadhoo was depopulated within the last decade, while GDh Kanandhoo and others nearby are known to have been deserted long before anyone we spoke with could recall. The specific reasons these communities did not survive while others around them did may never be fully understood.
Deserting a ‘dhoo
In Rathafandhoo, the most common explanation given for the exodus is that a few ambitious families left to further their children's educational prospects around 30 years ago, starting a trend that has today left the streets lined with empty coral stone houses. The fact that people had the means to up sticks and move supports stories that the island had in fact been one of the area's more prosperous. Indeed, we've heard similar tales of past grandeur about both GA Kondey and S. Meedhoo - also increasingly known for its abandoned abodes.
That the decisions of a few influential people could alter the fate of an entire community may sound far-fetched elsewhere, but the traditional role of the so-called bodu-meehaa on small islands is well-established. If the local patriarch takes his boats, his dependents, his money and his political connections to Male’, an island can find itself on permanent life-support (or government support)
While the signs look ominous for these communities, the historically unprecedented pace of recent change in the country still makes solid predictions difficult. The erosion and dispersion of island communities over time seems as much a part of Maldivian history as sea-monsters, Bodu Thakurufaanus and coups. But so is the (still evident) resourcefulness of islanders, as well as their resistance to change.
Modern developments appear to have catalysed this process toward a looming prospect of a Male’ city-state; but let's hope at least a few people keep the lights on in these smaller islands, just in case the future gets a little too bright.
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. Exclusive articles will be published biweekly on Mihaaru every Wednesday and Saturday.