From the outside, the island of Funadhoo in Gaafu Alif looks like most others in Huvadhu atoll. The ideal place to be castaway…or cast out?
Indeed, Funadhoo was the island used for the 2012 edition of the US survivalist TV show, ‘Naked and Afraid’, contrasting the classic paradise image with the brutal reality of nature in the Indian Ocean.
But, beyond the beach, through the dense and sweltering jungle, lies a secret that’s been kept for almost 60 years. In the centre of the island stand the remains of the island’s former community, whose plight demonstrated the equally harsh social realities of island life.
With no paths to lead visitors to the interior of this now-unused island, few in the area realise that dozens of coral-stone houses lie amid the screwpine and the palms, decaying out of sight, just as their former occupants once did. For, until 1959, Funadhoo was a colony for local men living with leprosy.
A scourge of human society for thousands of years, leprosy had long been feared and loathed throughout the world, considered both cursed and contagious. Local stories suggest that the original cases of leprosy in the Maldives came from shipwrecked slaves, whose French vessel was stranded in Huvadhu over 300 years ago. First interned in Villingili, sufferers of the disease were eventually moved to gender-segregated islands as medical theories of the age surmised, incorrectly, that the bacterial disease was both hereditary and incurable.
While the men of the atoll were moved to Funadhoo, the women were placed on the island of Havodda, in present-day Gaafu Dhaalu. This island is now home to one of the Maldives holiday resorts (Amari), as is a similar quarantine island in Seenu Villingili (Shangri-La). However, the seemingly distant eras of leper colonies and luxury resorts did in fact overlap by a few years, with the government establishing colonies in Biyaadhoo and Villivaru, near to Kaafu Guraidhoo, in 1959 before ending the practice altogether in 1977 (five years after nearby Kurumba resort was opened).
International eradication efforts followed the discovery of successful treatments in the 1950s, and leprosariums across the world were closed soon after, though a few still remain today in places such as China, Japan, and parts of Africa.
Reported cases of the disease have dropped since the introduction of multi-drug treatment, from over 5 million global cases in the mid-80s, to fewer than 200,000 today. New incidences of the illness in the Maldives normally number in the single digits each year, and can be cured with a 6-12 month course of treatment.
But, while this seemingly-brutal period of history is all but done with, wandering through the haunted ruins of Funadhoo is a reminder of the isolation and torment its inhabitants must have felt. Their stories have now passed into local folklore, most notably with the tale of Fuvahmulah’s Hawwa Didi (documented by Xavier Romero-Frias) – a story which provides insight into the experiences of many sufferers.
Formerly a well-liked member of the community, the tale recounts the dramatic change in the attitude of islanders towards Hawwa Didi as she began to exhibit symptoms of the illness. Cast out by friends and family to the far end of the island, Hawwa’s sadness, loneliness, and fear turned to anger and fierce independence.
While some versions of the story report Hawwa Didi as having died jaded and alone, others say she eventually received treatment and was cured (one version even adding that she received medical care on RAF Gan). In this telling, she never forgave those who cast her out, though she was able to start a new life, finishing her days happily married in a new island.
Let’s hope that at least a few stories from Ghaafu Alif Funadhoo’s former inhabitants ended in a similar way.