Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj
Hulhumeedhoo, lying on the eastern side of Addu atoll is unique for a number of reasons. Theoretically two communities (Hulhudhu and Meedhoo), it is one of the only islands in the Maldives to house two villages.
What’s more, in a climate often indifferent to history, the island’s Koagannu cemetery has weathered a thousand years of equatorial sun; preserving the memories of pioneering saints, said to have first brought Islam to the Maldives in the 12th century.
Despite these solid cultural foundations, however, the community is currently facing a steady deterioration that is increasingly common in the atolls.
In the far south, and separated from the rest of Addu City, Hulhumeedhoo’s streets are eerily quiet, with many residents referring to it as a ‘ghost town’. Those still living there have suggested that up to 80 percent of its residents may have moved to Male’, pointing to derelict properties such as this one, reclaimed by the hungry jungle over decades.
Census data shows that, over the past 30 years, the island’s population has shrunk by around 8 percent as the capital’s has grown by 182 percent (the national population as a whole has more than doubled in this period). Male’s permanent floating population – seeking work, healthcare and education – means that many of Hulhumeedhoo’s official 3,113 residents are unlikely to be found at home.
Of the ten of still-inhabited islands whose populations have shrunk since 1985, Hulhumeedhoo’s was – and still is – by far the largest. The reason for its particular vulnerability to recent changes are hard to know for sure.
The 1976 closure of RAF Gan – the presence of which had perhaps artificially inflated the local population – left a gaping hole in the economy. At the same time, the introduction of the tourism industry around Male’ would have created new job opportunities two decades before the first resort would make it as far south as Addu.
It is also possible that a reduced demand for Meedhoo’s agricultural produce could have played a role. New flows of foreign currency in Male’ would have made foreign imports more accessible and foreign trade more lucrative, while Addu’s independent trade with the continent had been curtailed by the central government in the late 50s.
Regardless of the causes, one thing is for certain; with plans mooted to move up to 70 percent of the population to the capital (up from around 38 percent now), Hulhumeedhoo is unlikely to be the Maldives’ only desert island for long.