By the Sea: Maldives

By: Dr S Srinivasan
The Maldives with a population of 270,000 has been isolated from the outside world for much of its history. The affable people here have adapted to island life with the main source of nutrition being fish, coconut and imported rice.

Sanjay Acharya, a photographer and media consultant was offered a project by the Government of Maldives and UNICEF to evaluate the media campaign on early childhood development. Sanjay invited a multi-disciplined 8-member research team including me to help him in this endeavour.

The Maldives stride the equator on the south west of India. The islands are numerous but small – access being difficult because of the surrounding coral reefs. Also the people have adapted to island life – main source of nutrition being fish, coconut and imported rice. The population of the 1,200 islands of about 270,000 have been isolated from the outside world for much of its history. Sea-trade saw the advent of Islam to the islands. Early records tell of female rulers and inheritance of power through matriarchy. The present day society, however, is dominated by male clerics and an adapted Islamic code of conduct. Women still enjoy many ‘freedoms’ compared to women in many other Islamic countries – equal right to education and freedom in selecting and divorcing spouses. The Maldivians speak the Dhivehi language (a composite of Sri Lankan, South Indian and Arabic) with an Arabic-like script.

I activated international roaming service on my mobile phone, stocked myself with a suitcase full of ready-to-eat and easy-to-cook vegetarian food packets, suitably cautioned that such food was unavailable on the islands and waited for the day of departure. The A-320 flight was smooth and we reached Colombo in 3 hours. It was raining at the Bandaranaike airport. After claiming baggage, we checked them in for the next flight and went up to the transit lounge on the first-floor to wait for the Male flight at 6.45 am. The flight touched down in Hulhule airport, built with the Indian engineers, an hour later. The long runway extends right out to the sea; so much so that you feel the plane is landing on water!

Immigration and SARS check followed and we were duly informed that no dogs, narcotics, alcohol and prayer items other than the Koran was to be carried into the nation.

To our surprise on arrival instead of a taxi, we had to push the luggage trolley up the jetty and catch a ferry. Twenty minutes of cruise on sapphire blue sea-waters with darting colourful tiny fish brought us to the capital – Malé Island from where we went to our hotel. The island of Malé is about 2 km long and 1 km wide, and packed to the edge with buildings and roads. Officially, the population is around 65,000, but with foreign workers and short-term visitors from other islands, there may be as many as 100,000 people in town – it certainly felt like it. The size of the island has more than doubled through reclamation projects. Among the city’s modest attractions is the National Museum, which houses untidy exhibits of the sultans’ belongings and a smattering of Thor Heyerdahl’s archaeological discoveries. Near the museum are the Sultan Park, and the imposing white Islamic Centre and Grand Friday Mosque which dominates the city’s skyline. There are over 20 other mosques scattered around Malé, some little more than a coral room with an iron roof. The oldest is the Hukuru Miski, famed for its intricate stone carvings. One long panel, carved in the 13th century, commemorates the introduction of Islam to the Maldives, while outside a graveyard holds the tomb of Abu Al Barakat and the tombstones of former sultans. Other sights include the Singapore Bazaar, a conglomeration of stores selling quality local handicrafts and an assortment of Maldivian and imported tourist knick-knackery. Also interesting are the shops selling home hardware, marine equipment, fishing gear and general merchandise for local villages. In the many small tea houses Maldivian men enjoy ‘short eats’ (small snack meals), smoking, chewing and talking.

We reached the UNICEF office that was a stone’s throw away and completed the paper work, introductions to support staff including interpreters and planning of the data collection. We were given English transcripts of the two- minute children’s health messages aired on TV Malé and the Radio years earlier and were asked to design a sample survey in order to document the impact of the Programme. A 52-week media campaign on radio and television that ran in 2000-2001, grabbed the attention of island communities. The broadcasts targeted caregivers of children in the age group of 0-3  in order to increase awareness of childcare practices. In no time, the theme song ‘Lobey Vashey, Lobey Deshey’ climbed to the top of the charts, and even after so many years remained a popular tune.

The vast majority of visitors come to the Maldives on package tours, staying at one of the 70 plus resort islands. Tourism in the Maldives is carefully managed. The strategy has been to develop a limited number of quality resorts, each on its own uninhabited island, free from traffic, crime and crass commercialism to minimise the adverse effects of tourism on traditional Muslim communities.

Though performances of traditional music and dance are not every day events, there is a contemporary Divehi culture which is strong and adaptive, despite foreign influences which range from Hindi movies and Oriental martial arts to Michael Jackson and Muslim fundamentalism. A bodu beru means a big drum, and gives its name to the best known form of traditional music and dance. It’s what tourist resorts put up for a local cultural night, and can be quite sophisticated and compelling.

Apart from fish and rice Maldivians eat meat and chicken on special occasions. Arecanut is the equivalent of an after-dinner mint and alcohol is only available in tourist resorts. The local brew is raa, sweet and delicious toddy tapped from the crown of the palm trunk.

Friday, the official holiday, saw us undertaking trips to the Embudu village in Kaafu atoll to visit a resort and for snorkelling. It afforded a grand view of the colourful undersea world of corals and fish. The El Niño in 1998 impacted the corals severely – the pristine reefs suffered coral mortality rates of 95 per cent. Since the devastation the corals have been recovering – it was pretty depressing in 2003, but roll forward to 2010 and it’s starting to look good again.

At Hurra we got a chance to visit the Four Seasons Resort and practiced kayaking. We then boarded a boat and sailed away to an atoll in the East. With living quarters on the boat we spent three days and nights on sea collecting data from several islands.

The garbage is collected from each island by boats that visit once every week and reused to create new islands. The degree of organisation in public distribution and infrastructure development was in some ways ahead of even developed countries. People are hooked to radios and television is watched only after the school going children have been put to bed. School is compulsory up to 7th standard – for high school children have to relocate to homes of friends and relatives in larger islands. Young men are away at work either fishing or in the resort.

The evaluation to assess the impact of the communication campaign was commissioned several years after the broadcasts ended. In our assessment, the media campaign, unique in the history of social marketing, upset most existing theories and was without doubt an unqualified success. No campaign can bring about fundamental behavioural changes in an entire society in such a short time. Yet, increased sensitivity was palpable. Some of the most significant changes were interacting and caring for children with special needs. We completed data collection in over twenty islands through the month and bade goodbye to the affectionate people of this remarkable country – to be back home for lunch – and that missing bowl of curd!


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