Meets three generations of the Shaheem family and discover the key role tourism has played in transforming their lives.
Outside of walking tours to Malé, few visitors ever leave their resorts and explore the other 1,192 islands that make up this fabulous archipelago. Those who do will experience firsthand the warmth and vibrancy of traditional Maldivian culture, which in many ways still moves to the ancient rhythms of the sun and stars.
With local industry limited to traditional fishing and farming activities, tourism has been key to transforming the lives of Maldivians and their families. A job in the hotel sector has enabled many to enjoy a quality of life that, just a couple of decades previously, had barely seemed possible. And for those who show talent this is just the start, with a number of local hires working their way up from waiter to general manager.
To hear the personal narratives of three generations of one typical family, the Shaheems of huraa Island in North Malé Atoll, puts these transformations into perspective.
The extended Shaheem family – a clan of more than ten – live together in a bright blue house of modest proportions on the narrow main street of this diminutive island. Originally made from coral stone, the house has been enlarged over the years with brick and concrete to accommodate the growing family. Like the other houses in the village, the Shaheem residence is gaily painted in bold primary colours and boasts a tiny front garden fragrant with hibiscus and frangipani blooms.
The patriarch Haji Adam is a fit and vigorous man of 73 with the long distance gaze of an ancient mariner. A devout Muslim, his title haji indicates he has achieved his life’s ambition: a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca – a journey he undertook with his wife, Fatima. Together they have four children, two sons and two daughters, all of whom still live on the coral white sands of huraa, their native isle.
With no formal education he has been a fisherman since he was a boy, sometimes collecting coconuts to make sugar and palm toddy when the weather was too bad to go out to sea. he admits that fishing was a tough and dangerous profession, one which often saw him spend long periods away from home on small wooden boats exposed to the open sea. Now that he is older he spends his time directing the family business of making rihakuru, a tasty Maldivian fish sauce, in a small courtyard at the back of their house.
His cheerful 65-year-old wife, Hajjah Fatima, has always been the principal breadwinner of the family thanks to her little souvenir shop that sells an assortment of shells and locally made handicrafts to visitors. She was married at 18, but when her first husband was lost at sea she was left alone with no means of support. In desperation she gathered a few cowrie shells she had found on the beach and went to offer them to a boat of Italian fishermen who had just docked at the jetty. This was over 40 years ago and foreign visitors to the island were rare. The young Fatima had to conjure up all her courage to approach these intimidating strangers. To her surprise, they bought her entire stock for the princely sum of US$20. Thus began her lifelong business enterprise, The Sky Luck Shop, that takes pride of place by the jetty.
“In the Maldives, women and men traditionally have their own professions. Men went fishing and the women stayed at home or sold produce in the market. I am proud to say that to this day I am the only woman on the island with my own souvenir shop.”
Ibrahim, Adam and Fatima’s son-in-law, hails from Makandudu Island in the northern Maldives. he is a man of many trades. Now 40 years old, Ibrahim has worked as a boat captain, a waiter and a taxi driver in Malé, as well as doing a variety of maintenance jobs at resorts over the years. After leaving secondary school at 15 he started work as a handyman’s apprentice.
“My family was very poor and I had to make it on my own. I was lucky that I liked to work with engines and eventually I become a mechanic and electrician. Working in the resorts pays well compared to ordinary jobs like fishing, so I can honestly say tourism has been good to me. My wife and I dream of having our own house one day, but it is difficult as things are getting more expensive all the time. If I had a chance I would like to visit England and Italy. I have met many tourists from these countries and I would be interested to see how people live in Europe. Above all else, my most important goal is to see that my children get a good education and have a good life.”
Ibrahim’s wife, Rafeeda, has lived in her parents home on huraa Island since she was born. An attractive woman of 35 with a bright and engaging smile, Rafeeda was married to Ibrahim at 18 and they have two children. Rafeeda is a proud homemaker and it is she who sees to feeding the entire family.
“I love cooking and it gives me pleasure to see everyone enjoy the food I prepare. Maldivian seafood curries are quite varied and I use different spices depending on the type of fish. We are lucky to have fresh fish every day, but I sometimes would like to get a greater variety of fruit and vegetables. I am happy with my life on the island as we can spend a lot of time together as a family. For me Malé is too noisy and busy.
I have two dreams: the first is to build our own house; the second for my children to succeed and be happy in whatever they do. I also pray that one day my husband and I can go to Mecca and after that, if I have a chance, I would love to go anywhere in the world where there is snow and mountains.”
Ibrahim and Rafeeda’s son Rishal is a sturdy and athletic 16-year-old. Already the tallest in the family, he is passionate about sport – especially football. his dream is to be a professional footballer like his hero Cristiano Ronaldo but admits he will probably go to university to study marine engineering. As all Maldivian schools are taught in English, he speaks the language with easy fluency.
Just nine years old, Rifadha is the baby of the family but her eyes sparkle with bright intelligence and her English is as fluent as her brother’s. She loves to watch cartoons on TV and play on the laptop that she shares with Rishal. At school her favourite subjects are English and maths and she dreams of becoming a teacher one day.
“I try to help my mother around the house when I’m not a school. She’s teaching me to cook, and I can already prepare some dishes by myself. I like to go swimming or play Bashi (a traditional ball game for girls) with my friends. Later I want to study at university as much as possible but I’m not sure what subject yet. I enjoy learning new things and reading about the world outside the Maldives. I’m happy to live on our island with my family but I have a friend in Sri Lanka and I think it would be nice if I could visit her there one day.”