Two Thousand Isles © 2021 Design by Naj
Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj

Seeing an atoll island from the sky feels completely unique, every time. The story of a human habitation in the Indian Ocean can be told from a whole new perspective, giving the world a look at the Maldives that even Maldivians haven’t had for most of their history.

From above, broader characteristics are quickly apparent in places that can seem unremarkable at closer quarters. These images of Gaafu Alif’s inhabited islands show their obvious similarities, but also their subtle diversity.

Just a few metres up reveals a living atlas, showing the atoll’s beauty, but also their vulnerability to human activity. From above, a busy community can almost disappear beneath a blanket of green, pleasant turquoise channels become violent scars on the reef and a (relatively) big island quickly becomes a tiny speck.

The varying impact of the 2004 tsunami is still visible on many of the islands, though not in a way most would expect. The blue roofs visible on most of the eastern islands, with the exception of Kanduhuludhoo and Kondey, show the extent of the damage done to local infrastructure, with new ‘tsunami houses’ provided for affected families. The blue neighbourhood at the northern end of Gemanafushi houses some former inhabitants of the now-depopulated Dhiyadhoo.

Kolamaafushi and Dhevvadhoo – whose unique isolation in the middle of the lagoon is clear – lie west of the outer reef, and escaped the catastrophe unscathed.

The relative sizes of North Huvadhu’s villages are also more visible from the air, with the four lonely streets of Kondey (resident population just under 300) almost lost in the island’s uniform green, in stark contrast to the dense multi-coloured medley in Dhaandhoo (c.1,300) and Villingili (c. 3000).

Symptoms of the latter two islands’ population pressure can also be seen in the moonscapes of reclaimed land onto which both communities are gradually migrating. The often unnatural and turgid outlines that result are again contrasted with places such as Kanduhuludhoo, whose modest population has allowed the island to maintain its natural shape, though evidence of excessive reclamation on a nearby island is visible to those who know where to look.

Kolamaafushi – formerly Kolaa and Maafushi islands – is perhaps the most interestingly shaped island in the atoll, with a thin causeway providing the main town with an outlet for a noisy powerhouse and smelly refuse area. The new red-roofed apartments on the connecting sliver of land are a slightly different hue from those in the atoll capital, Villingili, whose bright red rows indicate Chinese-built homes which are becoming common in most of the country’s major population centres.

Finally, clues to an island’s economy can also be seen from above, with Nilandhoo and Maamendhoo allocating the northern and southern parts of their islands, respectively, to farming. Despite these differences, however, the abundance of blue surrounding every island is a reminder of the continued importance of fishing to all of Gaafu Dhaalu.

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