Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj
You two are always fighting. You’re like Hulhudu and Meedhoo!”
So say many grandparents when separating siblings whose squabbles threaten to disturb the calm atmosphere in the homes of southerly Seenu atoll.
For while life in the Maldives is uniformly calm, island quarrels are common. Even in these pristine isles, family feuds tend to fester, and Addu’s eastern island(s) is perhaps the most famous example.
Hulhumeedhoo holds a peculiar status, being both one and two islands at the same time. The large (by Maldivian standards) island is one of only three in the archipelago with what might be considered separate communities or ‘villages’.* In fact, the Dhivehi language is unique in having no word for ‘village’ or ‘town’, with ‘island’ normally sufficient.
Councillors elected to Addu City Council represent the ‘Hulhumeedhoo’ constituency, while the central government considers them two separate administrative islands, perhaps fearing a repeat of past trouble.
Indeed, after visiting the country in the 1970s, American anthropologist Clarence Maloney wrote of two islands who had recently been physically separated by the government after official union at the start of the decade resulted in simmering tensions and physical violence.
In his book, People of the Maldives Islands, he described two communities with distinct identities. The pious and agricultural island of Meedhoo, with its history of religious scholarship, was said to have clashed with its more populous and carefree neighbour to the south.
“So the two villages functioned as two large factions, and there was a riot in which people went after each other with agricultural implements,” wrote Maloney. “[S]o local authorities dug a ditch which cut the road between the two settlements, and the administration of each became separate again.”
Most asked today say that any tensions are a thing of the past, quick to deny any such violence – a shameful thing in a traditionally non-violent society. Few on the island even seem aware of the exact boundary in the sprawling community.
There is no longer a large ditch between the two, which was said by Maloney to have been big enough to impede communications between the communities for a year, although a narrow trench does remain, running east-to-west just a few yards away from where the two are thought to officially meet.
Local historian Ibrahim Didi recalls great floods in that area of the island that prompted the digging of the trench to divert currents. Flooding is known to be a perennial issue in that part of the atoll, and one of the above pictures shows a deep channel cut into the reef between Huludhu and Canareef resort to prevent similar problems.
What’s more; a traditionally flood-prone area on Hulhumeedhoo island, unsuitable for original inhabitants, may even explain why two separate communities were established in the first place.
While tension and rivalry between neighbouring communities is common across the world, it seems likely that Hulhumeedhoo’s environmental challenges could have elevated its fighting into folklore as living memory fades.
*The others being nearby in Fuvahmulah, and the recently conjoined Fares-Maathodaa, in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll.