There’s something happening in Laamu. Something that’s both old and new at the same time. Something that tells a story about the Maldives past and its present; about where culture and economics hold hands for a bit.
You can see evidence of it piled up along the jungle paths of Dhanbidhoo, propped up against the walls of homes in Isdhoo, carted in wheelbarrows through the streets of Kalaidhoo, and stacked up for export on the harbour of Kunahandhoo and Maavah…and everyone is doing it – men, women, and children.
Fangiviyun (vinun) – or weaving palm thatch – is a craze (re)sweeping the atoll, keeping whole families busy, and supplementing local salaries of fishermen and island-level civil servants.
The process is simple – for those who know how. Collect yellowing leaves from your neighbourhood forest, soak in salt water for a few hours (out of direct sunlight, to avoid bleaching), and leave to dry. In the meantime, make sure you have plenty of coir rope – made from twisting the fibres of coconut husks. Finally, thread a giant needle, lay one leaf on top of another (that’s 2-ply for tissue fans) and stitch, stitch, stitch.
Once the stitching has continued for 16ft worth of thatch, which an expert can do in a couple of hours, they are bundled up and sold for between 65 and 75 rufiyaa each. (So, for context, that’s coffee, a sandwich and nuts in an island cafe…in Male’ nowadays, just the coffee). From here, the local middleman/dhoni collects its monthly quota from the isles Laamu, Thaa, and Meemu before selling onto resorts and resort suppliers.
Using palm leaves for shelter had been the traditional way to build houses for centuries, using the islands’ only abundantly available natural resource. But, by the early twentieth century, foreign visitors to the Maldives had begun to observe the growing prevalence of corrugated iron roofs.
More durable, less flammable, less attractive to wildlife came the early reviews, but more expensive, trapping more heat, and – the first tourists’ main bugbear – far less pleasing on the eye. It would be some decades before this new trend in housing would become widespread across the whole country, but by the time the tradition truly went out of fashion on the islands, the tourists would be back…and they still preferred thatch.
In Europe, and the UK in particular, thatch has already come full circle, and after having been seen as a sign of poverty is now an envious feature and a sign of affluence (a bit like a sun tan). While none of the people of Laamu still sleep under palm thatch, their hard work ensures that today’s visitors to nearby resorts can enjoy the island idyll; albeit superficially, as thatch doesn’t work so well well with air-conditioning and other mod-cons, which mandate a watertight roof with thatch finish.
Many of Laamu’s Mr and Mrs Thatchers have only taken up the practice in the last few years, presumably in response to the recent increase in resort building projects across the country. While Laamu itself has only one operating resort – the thatch-happy Six Senses – the recently-deposed President Abdulla Yameen boasted of having overseen the development of more than 50 new resorts, as the number of resort islands edges ever closer to the number of Maldivians island villages.
Whether the demand, or the leaves, will hold out is yet to be seen. But, in addition to the mini-revival of an old craft to serve a new(ish) industry, the fangiviyun boom in the atolls demonstrates the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit that has always been woven throughout these small island communities.