Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj
The sandy streets of the atolls, still flecked with coral walls and string joali, give the impression of being unchanged in millennia.
But the slow pace of island life can be deceptive. The pattern of the streets now running across the islands are indicative of the patterns of change slowly driving through the atolls.
The oldest inhabitants of the islands will still recall a time when meandering magu provided shade from the sun, and villages turned inwards from the salty spray of the ocean.
They may also recall islanders press-ganged into ploughing modern, European style, lanes through even the smallest of communities as part of Prime Minister Amin Didi’s mission to modernise in the late 1940s.
It has since been suggested that the resulting avenues have in fact disrupted the rhythm of island life, dividing communities both physically and psychologically.
Indeed, food shortages at the time of construction were exacerbated by lost agricultural space and fishermen forced to labour on dry land. With no vehicles in the islands at the time, many refused to use the roads at all.
Islanders have since blamed the accompanying introduction of walled houses and greater privacy as sounding the death-knell for community life – a symptom that environmental psychologists would no doubt wish to study further.
Xavier Romero-Frias cites this road-building as an example of high-handed attempts at development which continue to buffet the islands from both the (cultural) East and West, working against the local currents.
Today, foreign-trained leaders in Male’ continue to argue over which is the way forward for island society, though the road to development in the atolls appears to be a winding one; not so straight forward.
The islanders themselves seemed to feel that the new roads were leading from nowhere to nowhere, preferring the winding paths that had always protected their fragile communities from the harsh elements outside.