15 December 2017

A Maldivian Swim

raAlong with the Matterhorn and the Galapagos, the Maldives have been shortlisted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s easy to see why.

Male, with 100,000 people crammed onto the island, is easily the most populated of this string of beautiful turquoise beads scattered across the Indian ocean.

A leisurely stroll around the perimeter took only a couple of hours. No wonder everyone seems to know everyone else here. Blue skies, blue seas, warm breezes and beautiful beaches.

Step inland however and soon the cluttered maze of back streets takes over. Only the leggy minarets offer any guidance to the lost souls of Male’s back alleys. Rising high like gleaming signposts from the many mosques on this tiny island, the golden crescents are the only sense of direction Maldivians receive.

Just about everything here is imported. Once the government implements its complicated income tax system things will change but for now import duty keeps the islands afloat. There’s nothing of note to manufacture and the sandy atolls offer little food production. Everything coming in is taxed, plastic bags receive a 100% levy in an effort to keep the islands at least notionally “green”.

Scooters buzz everywhere, clearly the preferred mode of transport. They weave their way through the twists and turns, past the new Italian coffee shops, the seamstress and the book seller. The elderly lady with the milk-bottle lenses sells her dried red chilli peppers straight from her blanket thrown across the pavement.

Above all else, it’s the sheer quantity of young people that strikes the visitor to these islands – the guys in their threequarter length shorts, sweaty tee shirts, the long hair, wispy beards and the ubiquitous wrap-around sunglasses.

The girls, all but the very youngest, emerge in their dark trousers, overalls and of course the black head scarf.

ra1Growing numbers wear the full burqa and the niqab to cover the face, even in the stifling heat. Out for a midnight swim at Male’s artificial beach, the girls plunge under the inky waters fully clothed with their burqas and veils intact.

There are no churches anywhere and not a believer to be found in Male. Not one.

I took an ancient and smokey ferry to one of the many outlying atolls. It makes the trip three times a week, both a taxi and a lifeline for the islanders. We bobbed around in the Indian ocean for a couple of hours before being offloaded onto the immaculate white sands. It is just one of 200 inhabited islands.

About 3000 Maldivians lived on this particular island; I was the only white among them. I was also the only “Christian” among them, not just in an evangelical “born again” sense of being Christian but “Christian” as in western, non-Muslim and a ‘representative’ of a world-system far removed from, and not altogether admired by, followers of Islam the world over.

The sea was transparent and warm as a hot bath. On the sea bed, the coral was razor sharp. Across the lagoon, no more than fifty yards away, another island rose up with lush palm trees and the usual array of scuba divers and sun-seekers stretched out on one of this world’s most stunning settings. The “resort” was open for business and hosting some of Europe’s richer tourists.

The serenity is absolute. Imagine the jarring contrast then as the local mosque boomed out it’s call to prayer from a crackly megaphone hoisted high above the trees. Five times a day the intrusion slices through this paradise and shatters the idyll, the dreary call a reminder to us all, locals and foreigners, snorklers and surfers, that the Gospel still has a long way to go. I passed island after island, many inhabited but never visited by outsiders and hugely difficult to reach. There were no churches here either.

So far as missions goes, the Maldive Islands represent one of today’s tougher outposts. After Saudi Arabia, this is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population.

While ideal to look at, the truth is that light and life are currently very difficult to spot. There are Maldivians walking with the Lord though they may now be as few as just three in number in the whole world.

Technology is and will be key as the internet and radio continue to offer a window of light. Bible translation is paramount of course but it is a painstakingly slow process. The complexity lies in translating not just words into Dhivehi but concepts such as “being right with God”. It is so incredibly difficult to get that idea across into the Maldivian world.

The good news is that God knows all about this. The explosion of mission vision among the churches of the developing world is unquestionably key to how He will unlock places like the Maldives. It is easy to see why Asians reaching Asians is so critical to opening doors for the Gospel in some of this continent’s darker corners.

Back on the island, my hosts and I talked late into the night about their new-found democracy. It’s just a few years now since free voting came to the Maldives and a more representative parliamentary system established following thirty years of one-man rule. It has been a big shift for people to get their heads around and a sizable brigade of elected representatives are clinging on to hopes of a return to the past.

We debated the differences between democracy and freedom, being free to vote versus being free to make choices, free to think differently and even free to change one’s faith. My hosts were realising that the few short years of democratic life is nothing really.

Many Maldivians were away on their own journey that week. They made the long trip to Mecca for their Hajj pilgrimage, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world and the fifth pillar of Islam. The Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people and their submission to Allah. In these islands, traditions run deep and clearly there’s a long way to go. More democratic? Yes. More free? That will take time.


Gordon Stewart gordon@asialink.org.uk