The Maldives: A Place in the Sun

Editors Note: Maldives has travelled through turbulent times and yet has preserved its beauty and harmonious culture for centuries. Its survival through the rough tides of time is, considered by some, a miracle.  The following article was published 44 years ago on 18th June 1967, in The Register-Guard, a daily newspaper published in Eugene, Oregon, United States.

Written by Joe McGowan Jr. of Associate Press, the article portrays the Maldivian life style way before tourism was ever introduced in Maldives. Mr. McGowan speaks of the core values of the Maldivian culture and the major challenges faced by the, then Maldive Islands. You should also be aware that things are currently very different in Maldives and that much of the major health and lifestyle issues have changed through the swift development of the nation.

Tourism, which was first introduced to Maldives 39 years ago in 1972, is mainly responsible for the economic and industrial development of Maldives. We, at Maldives Promotion House are proud to bring to you this artefact lost in time, on the World Tourism Day 2011. Enjoy.

If you’ve been looking for an isolated tropical isle, a place where you can get away from television, city noise, smog, and lung cancer statistics, consider the Maldive Islands.

The Maldives – pronounced as in leaves – have no television, no smog, no income tax, no property tax, no banks, no gas stations, no political parties and no dogs.

If you are tired of your wife, all you have to do is walk to the city square, repeat three times, “I divorce you.” and just like that, instant bachelorhood. Or, if you are so inclined, you can pick up another wife, or as many as four – all at the same time; it is perfectly legal here.

Money doesn’t grow on trees in the Maldives, but you might say it can be picked up along the beaches at low tide. Cowry shells, the home of a type of Mollusk, are found in abundance and they are as good as money.

According to Webster’s, the cowry has been used as money in Africa and some Asiatic Countries. It was the “coin of the realm” in the Maldives for years. According to street corner gossip here in Male, the Maldives capital, two cowries will even today buy a wife in some places in Africa.

All of the above factors should make for a fairly decent place to vacation, if not retire. But there are some substantial drawbacks, among them the fact that the Maldives just aren’t ready for visitors.

A United States government background note on the Maldive Islands rather aptly states, “The Maldivian experience with foreign influence has been limited.”

First of all, it isn’t easy to get to the Maldives, an archipelago of about 2,000 islands with a population of fewer than 100,000 tucked away in the north Indian Ocean. About once a month a chartered Air Ceylon twin-engine plane flies the 400 miles to the Maldives from Colombo, Ceylon, with cargo, mail and perhaps a passenger or two.

The two-hour flight is out for most visitors though, because the Maldivian ambassador in Colombo will, as he put it, “issue a visa only when accommodations are available, and there are no accommodations.” Since the plane returns as quickly as unloading and loading can be completed, there wouldn’t even be time for sightseeing.

The other possibility is by sea, and there are about two sailings a month by small freighters from Colombo. Passengers sleep on the steel cargo hatches, over which canvas is stretched to provide some relief from the burning equatorial Sun or from brief, but furious rain squalls.

I was able to make arrangements with Capt. P. P. Nair of the Ocean Princess, a 2,500 ton British cargo ship under charter to the Maldives, to use the stateroom of a ship’s officer who was on leave and to sleep aboard ship the five nights she would be in Male harbour. In view of this, a visa was issued.

About 30 Maldivian passengers were crowded under the canvas shelter. They had been to Ceylon for university study, technical training, or medical treatment.

Most carried with them bunched of bananas, fresh pineapple and crackers to last them through the 48 hour voyage, although passengers also get rice and tea from the ship’s galley as part of their 90 rupees – $18.90 – fare.

The Maldives lie about 300 miles southwest of India’s Kerala coast.

None of the 2,000 islets, of which about 215 are inhabited, is more than five square miles in area and all are level and low lying, seldom exceeding an elevation of five feet., They would probably be washed out of existence by the periodic typhoons, except that coral reefs make perfect natural break waters.

Little had ever been heard of the Maldives until 1965, when this newly discovered independent country of about 97,000 people surprised the United Nations by asking for membership. It had been a British possession.

The move touched off arguments over admittance of so called “ministries” into the world body. But on Sept. 21, 1965, the Maldives were admitted with a vote equal to that of neighbouring India, with its 500 million people. India, incidentally, adds more people every three days than the total Maldivian population.

Other tiny former colonies such as Guyana and Barbados have been admitted to the United Nations since then, but the Maldives are still the smallest in population and area – 112 square miles.

An elected-for-life-sultan, Mohamed Farid Didi I, is the constitutional monarch. The Didi family has ruled the Maldives for the past eight centuries, even during a brief period in 1953 when the Maldives decided to become a republic and Amin Didi was elected president. The experiment failed and the islands went back to a sultanate, with rule primarily according to ancient Moslem law.

A half dozen families control the wealth and commerce of the Maldives.

One of the most powerful figures is the Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir, who also has taken for himself the portfolios of foreign affairs, finance – the national treasury is the country’s only bank – education and public safety. With the latter, he controls the Maldivian police and military.

Nasir declined to be interviewed and, in fact never replied to letters mailed two months in advance of this visit, requesting an interview. On the day I arrived in Male, Nasir’s office circulated to all government officials a memo stating, “Should a foreign correspondent ever visit Male, a full report of all information requested and provided shall be furnished to this office.”

Perhaps because of this, all but one Cabinet officer also declined interviews. Justice Minister Ahmed Zaki, an articulate, husky man of 36, proved to be an invaluable and cooperative, though cautious, source of information.

Zaki, wearing a blue slipover shirt with gold studs and gold cufflinks and a blue sarong, talked freely of the Maldives’ problems, aspirations, and Islamic legal system.

“Lashing,” Zaki said, “Is a form of punishment in the Maldives, but this has been reduced to a minimum. It is used today only in religious crimes such as illegitimate births and adultery.”

During the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan last year, three Male businessmen were found guilty of breaking the fast – no food or drink may be taken from sunrise to sunset. Each was given 19 lashes, ordered to fast for two months, and placed under house arrest for six months.

Fines also are levied in the Maldivian courts, but perhaps the most common form of punishment is banishment, especially in the case of crimes of violence. A man may be banished from his atoll for a period of months, or for life.

Justice Minister Zaki admits to many problems confronting his country, but points out the Maldives are just beginning to come into the 20th century. None of the Maldivian judges, for instance, has an internationally recognised law degree. All senior judges, however have studied Islamic law in Cairo.

“For so long we have been isolated that we tend to be less sophisticated.” Zaki said, in explaining how the Maldives have been able to adhere so strictly to Moslem law and tradition. Because of that, no dogs, or pigs may be brought on to the island; no alcoholic beverages are permitted and it has only been recently that tobacco was introduced and the women removed the veil.

Moving pictures also have been introduced – there is one cinema house on Male which operates on Saturday nights – but Zaki isn’t sure this was a good thing.

“Thefts have become more common and there are many quarrels now. Most of the increase has been there past six or seven years since people began seeing movies. They don’t understand the theme ‘crime does not pay.'”

“We are trying to push ahead,” Zaki says in a pensive moment, “We must have our students prepared for the modern world by the time our lives end.”

The Maldives have a very high literacy rate, but unfortunately the medium of instruction has been Dhivehi, the Maldivian language which appears to be a mixture of Sinhalese and Urdu or Arabi.

By law, all parents are required to teach their children to read, write, understand basic arithmetic and recite the Koran.

For the past five years, promising young Maldivians have been sent abroad thanks to scholarships from foreign countries. At present 23 are in Cairo, 2 each in Canada, Russia and New Zealand, a few in Australia and some in Ceylon and India.

Ceylon has sent over one other person, for a job that he must perform only one day a month – standing by a fire extinguisher while the Air Ceylon plane lands and takes off from the airport at Hulhule, a 20 minute boat ride east of Male. Air Ceylon wouldn’t agree to service until there was a trained airport fire fighter on the ground.

Approximately 12,000 people live on Male, giving the island-which is half mile long and a mile wide – one of the highest population densities in the world. Nonetheless they have kept their island unbelievably neat and clean.

The white sand streets are swept clean of any leaves, paper or any other debris. Most of the homes appear freshly white washed and their roofs of corrugated metal, a very popular building material, have rested and weathered to a uniform shade.

Even in the homes of upper-class government officials, the furnishings are sparse and plain. In many homes the bed is a large wooden platform suspended by chains from the ceiling and with no mattress or springs. One man explained that on a hot night you can push a foot against the floor and start the bed swinging, so the sleepers get a breeze.

Each home has its own well, with water coming from a depth of only four feet. The water table is kept by the 100 to 150 inches of rain which falls each year.

This ready availability of water is behind much of the severe health problem in the Maldives, explains Manickavasager Sathianathan, Ceylonese doctor assigned here by the World Health Organisation.

“Human waste is placed in the soil not far from the wells,” he explains, and with the sandy soil and heavy rainfall, the wells are contaminated. As a result there are periodic typhoid epidemics and chronic intestinal diseases.

Malarial mosquitoes also breed in the uncovered wells. Sathianathan said an anti malaria pilot project was begun in 1965 on Male atoll. Up to 5 percent of the blood samples taken showed malaria parasites and he estimates the infection is up to 25 percent on the outer islands.

More than 5 percent of the people have tuberculosis. There are 300 known lepers and a number of other tropical diseases have been found.

Sathianathan says the various health hazards and a severe shortage of milk combine to produce a tragically high infant mortality rate. There is only one cow on Male and no milk for those on the outer islands.

The Maldivians appear to be of Aryan decent with some mixture of Arab and South Indian blood. They are generally small and wiry, with the average height of men being 5 feet 2. The women are attractive – some very pretty – and lighter, probably because they stay out of the sun.

Fishing is the basic industry and about 3,500 tons of Maldivian fish are exported each year to Ceylon.

All commerce is carried on by the Maldivian National Trading Corp., through an office in Ceylon. Male is virtually a free port, and the government shops are stocked with Swiss watches, English bicycles, and Japanese cameras and transistor radios.

One shopkeeper had for sale a 1905 King Edward VII gold sovereign and a bar of silver from “his majesty’s Mint, Bombay.”

It isn’t easy for a visitor to do any shopping in Male, however, because this one, at least, never found a legal way to obtain Maldivian rupees.

The post office, whose colourful postage stamps are a big foreign exchange earner for the Maldives, refuse to accept United States dollars or Ceylon rupees. Custom officers who requested payment for a departure tax, finally decided not to collect the tax when given a choice of dollars or Ceylon rupees. One businessman finally was found who would exchange Maldivian rupees for Ceylon rupees.

The women appear to have two purposes in life, boiling fish and having children. Few people interviewed here had a family smaller than seven children. One official said he understood the birth rate was 57 per 1,000, which would rank the Maldives well above India.

Justice Minister Zaki said that as a general rule, males marry at 16, and “girls seldom before 13.”

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