Authentic stories, about the lives of quintessential Maldivians across the Maldives, exclusively brought to readers by The Edition.
Imagine being nestled under the shadow of the trees by the beach with a soft breeze gently passing you by every so often. Azure blue waters in the distance and white sand between your toes. For many, it would be the perfect point for relaxation. For Abdul Kareem from Alif Dhaal Dhigurah, this is his place of work. With strings of thread tied across two trees, Kaleem spends most of his days weaving fishing nets by the beach.
Gazing into the distance as if recalling fond memories, Kareem spoke about how he got started. From the beginning of his youth spanning till today, this is the work he has been doing for nearly 50 years - making countless fishing nets and using them to catch fish.
Although the catch used to be smoked and sold to the capital city of Male’, they are now sold mostly within the island, feeding its own community.
“It is much easier to do this work now. Back in the day, we had to make our thread using “uii” (a silky type of thread). It takes almost a month for the whole net to be completed. Now we bring this special kind of thread from India. It does not take as long as it used to anymore. If I am well and healthy, weaving an entire net doesn’t take me more than three to four days. It is really nothing for me.”
We used to take the nets and place them around neighboring lagoons. At that time, a lot of ‘Mushi Mas’ (Bigeye Scad) venture into these lagoons.
To most people, catching a fish or a great number of fish using a vast net may seem like the simplest thing.
Not according to Kareem though..
The way he describes his work, it seems more like a special kind of art one needs to master.
“Not many people know how to cast these sort of nets. But if you do know, you can catch pretty much any kind of fish from the lagoons using these nets.
Kareem spoke of his earnings when community-based fishing was at the peak in the Maldives, describing fishermen at the time as not really having kept track of how much they made.
His eyes filled with pride as he spoke of how he had fed, clothed and educated his family of seven children, stitch after determined stitch. On the trips to Male’ to sell their catch, they bought food and other household necessities that they needed from the city.
Though he is passionate about his work, he believes that this is the kind of work is only done by the older generations.
“These days young kids these kids work in offices. Even on this island, most young folks prefer the hospitality business, my children included. They would know how to do this work, but they are too busy managing guesthouses and escorting tourists to places.”
Kareem said that he cannot say for sure how many people he has taught this work over the years.
Whoever comes to learn, he eagerly teaches.
“Some of the expatriate boys also come and ask me to teach them. They will ask me if they can try. I give them a go and show them how to do it. Not just them, even some tourists come to watch. During their evening strolls tourists often stop by to take pictures or to watch me weave.
“What you really need for this work is patience. It is a painstakingly delicate work - takes a while to complete a net."
Describing the nets as needed to be around the area rather than over the corals, Kareem claimed if the person casting the nets was careful and knew how to use them, the fishing method did not pose any harm to the coral life.
“You don’t have to drape it across the reef to catch fish. These nets are not as rigid as the bigger nets out there.”
“Sometimes, different rays that come to eat the fish caught in the net end up getting trapped as well. Yet as the nets are quite delicate, the creatures always break the net and escape. As a rule, rays and turtles are much stronger than these nets.”
When asked about how many nets he might have made over the years, his eyes sparkled with humor, quickly responding that he could not come up with a number as to how many.
"If I had to guess," he said chuckling, "I'd say, definitely over a thousand."
“The fastest I’ve ever woven a net was while visiting my son in India, where he was studying. It took me three days, which was quite the feat for its size, and fetched a tidy amount as well!” he said, eyes sparkling with humor.
With a catch in his throat, Kareem described the many ways fishing in the Maldives has evolved over the years. From being able to catch countless baitfish, and luring hundreds upon hundreds of Maaniyaa Mas (Rainbow Runners) by a pole from Dhigurah's very own lagoon to today, when the many environmental changes have led to a serious depletion in fish life.
“The corals here are nearly all dead. It used to be so beautiful. Almost the entire reef is white and lifeless. “This used to be home to so many colorful corals, clams, and oysters. Back then, not much was done to ensure the conservation of this environment so that might be a reason why things turned out this way”
Kareem believes that the reef fish populations are suffering due to the lack of baitfish present in the lagoon.
Without missing a single beat, he resumed his weaving, expressing his hope that things would improve and smiling away the woes of the conversation, and leaving everyone listening to his stories no choice but to leave and hopefully return someday, back to visit the cheerful old man and his many, many tales of the sea.