Two Thousand Isles © 2017 Design by Naj

Signs of Life

Male’ is a town with a lot to say. Tourists on the city excursion hear the whistlestop whimsy of markets and mosques, while foreign news coverage can make out little more than population and politics above the din.

Many are keen to hear what the city really thinks, but it can be tough to get acquainted with the island metropolis.

If the streets of Male’ themselves could talk, what would they say?

The walls of the capital would discuss the lives of one third of the population; a persistent negotiation for hearts and minds; rufiyaa and relevance.

Even a short walk around the crowded island today will show that (beyond energy drinks and mobile phones) it is housing, education, and politics that dominates the city’s spiel; ‘Room for Rent’, ‘Extra Tuition’, ‘Vote for Me’.

The capital’s large floating population buoys demand for rooms and every street corner is offering a bed for the night. Though the country’s teacher-to-student ratios are low, families’ expectations are high. Teachers struggling to pay rent are happy to put in the extra hours, and every lamp post is happy to pass on the message.

Multi-party politics has also given Male’ regular makeovers in recent years. Over time, political rivalries peel and are pasted over, though the opposition’s voice still lingers in the goalhi. Three years after the last major polls, the pink and yellow make-up from political parties has smeared.

The President’s face beams down from imposing billboards on the main thoroughfares, promising development. Opposition artwork is now mainly found in the winding backstreets, reflecting faded optimism. The voices of an underemployed youth can also be heard, marking gang territory.

But elsewhere, hope springs eternal for the capital’s cottage industries, whose ads for fish, betel nuts and joospetty lend an island lilt to the capital’s accent.

The enthusiasm for painting and postering is never quite matched when it’s time to clean up, leaving bleached echoes of the city’s big events. The 2014 World Cup, the 2015 independence celebrations, and last year’s Maldivian Idol craze wait patiently to be forgotten.

For anyone seeking to understand the city, their eyes must do the listening.