The Edition


Two Thousand Isles: Archipelago Artisans

15 July 2017, MVT 19:26
Libaas makers in GDh Madaveli. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ
15 July 2017, MVT 19:26

By Daniel Bosley

It’s been another week spent looking back on our trip around the southern atolls, and making plans for the higher latitudes of Laamu soon to come.

Hopefully our island skills will be a little sharper next time round. I’m determined to learn how to open a Kurumba without endangering limbs; I want to know what every other fisherman is doing that I’m not; and, speaking of fish out water, I’d really like to learn how to operate a boat...just a small one would do.

But there are some atoll arts that I don’t think I’ll ever master, though I’ve been lucky enough to watch many of them with awe over the past few months. The country and its crafts are changing, but many people have retained the skills that have traditionally - and often still do - pay the bills.

First of all, it to be recognised that the most important skills are undoubtedly still found in the kitchen. Here, the women of the islands continue to perform miracles with often limited resources, finding parts of the fish I didn't even realise existed...bandidi is my new favourite. (And we’ll definitely photograph a guy cooking just as soon as we find one).

But people are still working magic beyond the badhige. In Huvadhu alone we met people making clothes, rope, knives, boats, hooks, mats, brooms, and - most importantly - decent money. Some crafts have little commercial value today, but others are still profitable. Some have evolved beyond recognition over the years while others seem on the verge of extinction.

Skills for Life

Boat-building in GA Kolamaafushi. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Local boat-building today seems to have a foot/oar in both of the above categories. People are still making boats (I mean, the country's not getting any less wet) but the work has lost a little of the romance - involving less carpentry, and more fibreglass and prefab moulds.

In GA Kolamaafushi, local boat-builders were busy with a number of projects, most notably an A/C ferry for the Male-Hulhumale’ route. The original skills, one explained to me, had come from Raa Alifushi - one of the Maldives’ most famous specialist islands - but modern methods could be learned from a manual.

We found a less lucrative trade, but one still making ends meets - quite literally - in GA Gemanafushi and GDh Madaveli. Here, the libaas ladies continue to make the traditional dresses still emblematic of Dhivehi culture. While they’ve been squeezed out by white gowns at weddings and an updated 'national dress’ for official functions, the nostalgia-factor still keeps these small businesses ticking over. School plays and other cultural events bring in MVR2,000-3,000 per dress.

Another distinctive craft that continues to find a small but consistent market is that of the mat-weavers in GDh Fiyoari and Gaddhoo. Again, an exclusively female preserve, these businesses have received some assistance from the UNDP as part of a drive toward empowering women economically. Taking advantage of the reeds found in Huvadhu’s wetlands, the meticulous mats - distinctive for their yellow, orange, and black designs - can sell for as much as MVR7,000, though this represents four weary weeks’ of weaving.

Mat-weaving in GDh Gaddhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Tools of Tradition

Both dress-makers and mat-weavers are undoubtedly declining in number, with younger generations less interested in taking on such work. We did, however, find one local profession that has maintained its membership for more than 30 years, largely because the husband and wife team of Mohamed Manik and Saaditha Mohamed are probably the only hook-makers in the Maldives. We were told that their business in Fares-maathodaa is unique; a claim that two national appreciation awards would seem to support.

Unsurprisingly, they continue to catch more orders than they can fill, despite the fact that thousands of drab nails are metamorphosed into shiny hooks on their outdoor assembly-line each week. As there’s no pole-and-line without the hooks, the importance of this surprisingly-complex process should ensure that the national appreciation won’t be stopping anytime soon.

While most of the above skills seem likely to be practiced for at least a little while longer, there was one we came across that appears in imminent danger of extinction.

On the island of GDh Nadellaa, Solih Hussein’s work can still be heard up and down the sandy streets; his hammer striking the anvil just as it has for the past 50 years. As the atoll’s last blacksmith, he also receives more work than he can take, particularly as the physical impact of his trade begins to take its toll. Most of his jobs involves making and repairing the knives, machetes, and coconut-scrapers that have enabled islanders to tap into what nature has provided.

Blacksmith Solih Hussein in GDh Nadellaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

But, disposable imports have made this work less essential than it was. He’s seen all the other blacksmiths in the area down tools as their kids refuse to pick them up. As Solih contemplates the same problem, it felt like a rare privilege for us to hear his hammer ring, knowing full well that his is a dying art.

On reflection, it's hard to say which of the above skills will go forward as tradition and which will move into history, but we're looking forward to seeing more of the talent in the near future.

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.