With a total population of around 239,000, the Maldives is the smallest independent nation in Asia. An average per capita income of $US680 a year makes it on of the poorest nations in the world. Astonishingly, however, the grinding poverty found in other parts of Asia is rarely seen on these islands. Beggars are a rarity. According to HCP Bell ‘….. the people desire nothing so greatly as to be left by the outside world, as much as possible, along and undisturbed in their sea-girt happy isolation .’.
The majority of Maldivians live their lives on tiny islands where interaction is limited to a few hundred fellow islanders. To this day the dhon meehaa (white person) is often regarded with fear and suspicion on the far-flung islands where tourists rarely go. So don’t be surprised if you are met there by screeching children, women in flight and cold, pensive stares from the menfolk. But human nature is paradoxical and the Maldivian people can be as bold as they are shy, as knowledgeable as they are naïve, and as hospitable as they are hesitant. To accept and be accepted by this small, closely knit, rigidly structured and discipline society demands a fundamental appreciation of the politics, beliefs and customs of its people.
It was once considered dishonourable to eat with a member of an inferior class or to be seated physically higher than someone from a superior class. The superior class were the beyfulhu make up of sultans and their relatives. They bore titles, such as ‘Maniku’ and ‘Didi’, and prohibited anyone without a permit to wear shoes, buy a flashlight, erect a fence around their house or study a foreign language. Nowadays things are a lot different. ‘More civilised’, Bell would say. Maniku and Didi are popular surnames and ‘Kalegefaanu’ is the most coveted title. Something of a knighthood, it is bestowed on only a handful of people, including the President and those who render outstanding services to the community.
While a caste system does not operate now, the texture of Maldivian society shows its effects. The most overt form of social distance today is found in the language. Different words and prases are used according to whom one speaks. For example, if referring to yourself when speaking to a fisherman, you would say ‘aharen (I)’, but to a government offical you would say ‘alhurgandu (slave self)’.
Traditionally the population is socially ranked according to job status. Fishermen occupy the largest peer group, making up almost 50 per cent of the total work force. The captain of a fishing crew, the keyolhu, earns one fifth of the catch and that may equate to 1000 fish on a good day. Carpenters are highly respected and the best carpenters are found in Raa Atoll, where they are renowned for their boat building skills. On the same social rung are the hakeem (local medicine men and astrologers) who are held in high esteem. Throughout the country, there are many such men who are considered to possess mysterious powers. They combine traditional herbal remedies with Unani (Arabic) philosophy to treat their patients.