Malé, the capital of Maldives. Less than six square kilometres of land on which 150,000 people live, crammed into small apartments in thousands of high-rises determinedly cemented into low-lying land just one metre above sea level. Over at least 25,000 motorbikes zoom about on its narrow lanes, weaving in and out of lines of hundreds of unnecessary cars, status symbols choking the earth. People spill over onto the busy roads, forced to face oncoming traffic in the absence of a walk-able pavement. Children cling desperately to the hands of their parents, are belted onto motorbikes, or are being driven in another unnecessary car. A leisurely stroll to school without fear of traffic on speed is not an experience the young in Malé have ever known. Malé folk talk loudly, move largely in groups, and almost everyone is connected to the world with a Smart Phone. People look the same but are somehow different, dressing to belong to one or other clan of the times. Men wear beards, some as Salafis, some as hipsters. Many women could be from the streets of New York while others could have stepped out from a Saudi home. People argue, laugh, have coffee, cry. They eat Supari, spit loudly, read poetry, eat lovely fish curries and cupcakes, protest, and keep a rolling conversation going on around the streets, and on social media. Malé is rarely quiet, always busy and looks like it may topple over any minute. The ‘sunken island’, some have called it.
Most residents of Malé today come from everywhere in the archipelago. One third are Bangladeshi workers. Their presence in Malé, Maldives’ (mal)treatment of them, and their impact on the life of Maldivian economy and culture is a story in itself, for later. Lives of Maldivians themselves in Malé are hard, its trajectory and flow controlled largely by exorbitant rents beyond reach of ordinary Dhivehin. Years of development with a narrowness of focus that excluded islands far from, or regarded as unimportant by Malé, have forced people to move to the capital. Many formerly thriving islands are now desolate, their houses—both poor and well-off—abandoned by families forced to pack their bags and head to Malé. From the island of Vaikaradhoo, 13 families emigrated to Malé last year alone. Local newspaper Haveeru tells a story of abandoned lives of people who left for Malé, and people who have been abandoned by those who left for Malé.
The high demand for property in the capital has created the sharpest of divisions in the socio-economic makeup of Maldives today: the divide between people with land in Malé and those without. Things are about to get worse with the new 15% property tax all—even first-time— buyers must pay. On top of the new tax, all buyers have to also shell out for a 6% GST, which brings taxes to 21% of the value of the property. An added burden, which must also fall on the buyer, is the 20% deposit required to secure a home loan that would put the property within reach. Haveeru calculated that any prospective property buyer in and around what the government is calling the Greater Malé Area, must have 41% (MVR 820,000) of the average property price set at around MVR2 million. In a country where the average salary is around MVR5,000, buying property is a dream well beyond reach for almost everyone.
Thousands of land-owning Malé people, all of whom inherited their houses or plots before land became gold, have moved to neighbouring countries: often Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, and Singapore; or to Australia, the UK, the US and, sometimes, the Middle East. Their houses in Malé are in turn left to be rented by the thousands flowing in to Malé. The rental income pays for not just their children’s education but also covers their own rental homes in the countries they have relocated to. Such moves are not always motivated by desire; most often it arises from a necessity. Those who leave have better access to education, health, sanitation, and human freedoms than all other Maldivians. People in Malé have less. People in the islands lesser.
The emphasis on land as a path to wealth, or at least to a better life, caused a visible shift in Malé people’s perception of what a home is. Instead of being a place where one can build a shelter and try to be happy within, homes became businesses, livelihoods, survival weapons. This shift has meant few people in Malé have a home home. The only way to live more than just to survive has meant getting their homes built as apartment blocks to rent out at the highest possible charge. Malé lost of all of its old charm and character in this shift, its hand forced by bad economics and development without consciousness. Homes in Malé used to have gardens, open-air bathrooms, mango trees, coconut palms, and breadfruit trees. Now almost everyone has an apartment block in various stages of construction and/or disrepair, most of it owned by a ‘developer’ who paid the deposit required by the bank, which charges an interest rate of 11% on each loan.
Most people cannot afford the deposit money, so the developers step in. They give the land-owning family of half a dozen children two or three apartments, or a floor or two, keeping the rest for themselves until their investment, and then some, is recovered. Sometimes this takes 10 years, sometimes 20 or more. It depends on how desperate the landowner, and how ethical the developer. Bad laws, daft regulations and lack of an independent judiciary have left the door open to cowboys, conmen and opportunists who have frequently deprived people of their land for years, sometimes forever. Landed women frequently become prey for men of all ages seeking to get a foothold in the property business through marriage or by pulling scams geared specifically for the ‘weaker sex’. Children fall into generational feuds over land; the elderly sometimes get killed for it.
One of Malé’s characteristics since its time as the seat of a Kingdom has been a strong delusional sense of grandeur, a penchant for putting itself and its ‘original’ residents an imagined class above the rest. There used to be a time when people from other islands needed a pre-approved visa to come to Malé, so far removed from all others the island thought itself. Years of treating other islands as inferior and thus bestowing upon their development the most cursory of glances has meant every basic service on all other islands are several steps behind the services in Malé, poor as they themselves are. Today, most Maldivians living in Malé are from elsewhere, as Maldivians they want the same services people have access to in Malé, and Malé only. Just as there are people leaving the island of now derelict Vaikaradhoo, people are also moving from the more prosperous atolls and islands like Addu and Fuahmulah. Well-built modern houses and old family homes stay vacant on scores of islands, moss growing on the outside, gardens becoming woodland with fallen coconut palms and tropical vegetation. They stand to be relics of a Maldivian culture lost in the need to be where modern comforts, expectations and aspirations are. Ruins of island life as it was once lived.
Higher aspirations and more confidence in themselves among people of other islands has also meant the Raajje Therey Meehaa is no longer willing to give their children to ‘good houses’ in Malé as little houseboys or housemaids, to get a bit of education on the side. If lucky. Families now move to Malé as a bigger unit with the goal of being close to the children throughout their schooling. The pattern is for families to wait for their oldest child to exhaust all levels of education possible from their islands (primary/lower secondary), then move to Malé to pursue further education. To make sure the family unit gets separated as little as possible, the younger children come, too. They are enrolled in pre- and primary schools in Malé. In 2016, the demand for entry into Malé’s schools are so high, schools are being organised to teach in shifts, all institutions to have a morning and afternoon session of the same classes for two batches of students. Like everything else, the exponential demand has vitalised the dark-arts and the desperate. Preferred school placements can now be bought for a price; a high price. Overburdened schools, congestion, high-living expenses and unaffordable rents are not the only problems people moving to Malé face on a daily basis. The economic issues come with many social ones.
Determined as people are to keep family units together, they get fragmented in their attempts to fit into the small spaces Malé life dictates. If the father cannot find work in Malé, which is often the case, he stays back to earn money from working on his own island. Or he works in a resort. To make an understatement, if not in a senior position, Maldivians do not have the happiest of lives in resort employment. While the money can be better than other private sector jobs, working for a resort almost always means staying on the resort island itself, away from the family until whenever the annual holiday becomes available. The mother, meanwhile, stays in Malé, works if she can get a job, and ensures their children go to school. Education is prime as very often the only way, other than owning land in Malé, to guarantee the next generation gets a fair chance at the limited resources the government has made available to its people, and at the world beyond.
The lives of these families in the flats and apartments of Male’ depend on the amount of money they have after paying the monthly rent. A one-bed apartment starts at around MVR 10,000 A small two-bedroom apartment in Malé or Hulhumalé begins at around MVR15,000, and three beds can easily hit the 35-40,000 mark. Some apartments in Malé and Hulhumalé are for well over MVR100,000 a month. The average salary of a Maldivian is around MVR5,0000. There is no minimum wage; attempts to set one have been rejected by the ruling party as a threat to competition in the labour market. With the high taxes and interest rates discussed before, and high living expenses, majority of Malé’s residents have no choice but to keep on renting, every month putting together and pouring into someone else’s bucket over two thirds of the Rufiyaa they had worked hard to get. As more and more residents are edged out of homes and on to the streets to sleep rough, people have no choice but to cram entire families into small flats. Most live a hand to mouth existence, and keep their children indoors when they are not in school so they don’t get run over or fall prey to drugs or to religious extremists. Both groups lurk around schools, waiting to show young people the road to paradise according to each. Around the corner are Malé’s street gangs, notoriously violent and ruthless. For most part the government has not been keen to stop any of them.
With a police force which the president himself has declared corrupt, rampant gang-violence and heroin addiction made crime rates soar in the last few years. The current climate of political repression and fear, and a clamp down on all civil rights, has brought consistently high rates of violent crime to an uneasy pause. How long it will last is anyone’s guess. Malé’s youth population is huge, its services and options for young people few. Sports grounds have to be paid for by players, creating an elite class of young people who can and cannot do sport. The surfers’ area in Malé, Raalhugan’du, is being destroyed to make room of a bridge to connect the high-rises on Malé with the high-rises on Hulhumalé. Coffee shops close early for national security reasons. Assemblies are brutally dispersed, gatherings are discouraged. Although artists of all kinds persevere and flourish despite the less than conducive environment, music and fun are haram, or disapproved of in general. Youth are told to conform, erase differences, forget books, aspire to work at the Burger King and behave. Be disciplined like Singapore even if with none of its law or order. People live fraught lives from today to tomorrow, planning for the future is economically and socially impossible.
Malé’s infrastructure is poor and overburdened. When it rains, Malé becomes impossible to walk. None of its drains can handle any prolonged or heavy rainfall, clogging up and causing the streets to be flooded for hours or days on end. It is impossible to go anywhere unless they are prepared to wade in water. There is chaos and confusion. The island of Thilafushi, the so-called garbage island, burns its rubbish incessantly making the air toxic. How much of its toxins end up tarring your lungs depends on how the wind blows towards Malé on a particular day. Malé’s drinking water supply is overstretched, its electricity grids are vulnerable and its Internet services a constant cause of frustration for the 40 per cent of the population always online. Malé’s streets are easier to navigate on its many sunny days, but it’s not anymore peaceful. There is traffic, noise, pollution, and people. Unlike in the 1990s, when Malé people still knew each other, most residents of Malé today are strangers; some maybe familiar strangers, but strangers nonetheless. That most accommodation in Malé is rented rather than owned has meant losing the sense of ownership that make people proud. Malé now belongs to everyone and no one. Without ownership, places become easier to make dirty, vandalise, ignore, abuse. One of many reasons Malé has gone from being as clean as any other Maldivian island to being probably its dirtiest.
In many ways, Malé is a thoroughly modern city, living out all of modernity’s problems (with a few of its pleasures) in a microcosm, fighting to keep its head above water on five square kilometres of submerging land. What Malé is today is shaped by the daily struggles, victories and defeats of its hundred and fifty thousand residents from everywhere in the Maldives. At a broader level, it is also defined by the political and ideological struggles that keep its residents divided, even as they are united by the daily grind. A large section of Malé’s residents, wherever they are originally from, want democracy. Another significant section wants a return to the stability offered by authoritarianism, even at the expense of human rights. Another section have become used to the endemic corruption and quick dirty money. They want more, faster. Another section wants to know nothing, see nothing, hear nothing, and remain colourless. A wide ideological chasm, meanwhile, is opening up between those who subscribe to various radical religious stances that today divide the world, and not just Malé and Maldives.
Things are precariously balanced both in Malé both as a place to call home, and in the political and ideological direction(s) it could take Maldives in the near future. More on this next time.
Photograph 1: Male’, Aznym
Photograph 2: Laamu Gan, Munshid Mohamed The picture depicts the kind of space and outdoor island life people have to leave behind for Male’.
Illustration: Karo, Male Shitty 257am
Additional Resources:Raajjetherey Meehunge Party
This article was originally published on Dhivehisitee.com. It has been republished with permission.
Dr Azra Naseem is a former journalist who now works as a Research fellow in Dublin City University.
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