Comment: On the ‘Vaudhuge Dhathuru’ campaign trail

I spent the past two weeks traveling with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on its Vaudhuge Dhathuru (‘Journey of Pledges’) campaign, all the way from Kolamaafushi Island in Gaaf Alif Atoll to Addu City. We visited more than 20 islands, including Addu City.

I was born and raised in the capital city of Male’. I am 19 years-old, but except for brief vacations with my family I have not traveled very much in the Maldives. Hence, I have not been able to experience “island life” and by this I do not mean the white sandy beaches or crystal clear waters of the Maldivian islands, but the daily lives of the residents who spend their whole lives on these isolated islands.

The trip was an absolute adventure; one that made me realise my own privilege in growing up in Male’, and the huge discrepancies between the urban centers and the rural islands. I have lived all my life in a bubble created by my parents. Can you believe I’ve never had to make my own bed? To live in a kanneli dhoni for 12 days was a huge challenge for me.

I was on Reyva Dhoni, known as ‘Media Odi’, along with 52 others. Everyone else wanted to be on Reyva Dhoani. We had all the photographers, media and the young and energetic ‘Yellow Force’ on board, so you can imagine how much fun it was. And really, you could actually see how prepared MDP was for this trip. They had thought of everything; there was a kitchen boat that came along with us, and a small launch, in case we may had a need for it.

Meals were prepared and we’d enjoy them in the middle of the ocean. There would always be someone singing a classic bodu beru song, or at times, a couple of guys getting together for Lava Baazee. It was never silent, it was so happening, and it would always turn out to be something exciting. As for the toilet arrangements, there was one toilet and usually 52 people on board, so you do the math. It was so small, you wouldn’t believe. Someone would always be knocking on the door, and as you can guess, it was always an emergency.

I would very much like to tell you about the first 24 hours of the trip. We left Male’ at around 5:00PM and it soon got dark. And all of a sudden, without warning, out of nowhere the boat started to wobble and it suddenly hit me, I’m going to have to stay put for 22 hours or perhaps even longer.

I started to miss my family and my bed… and mostly the toilet. I thought to myself, ‘I couldn’t survive in this place, why the hell did I even come…’ I was on the rooftop all night, inside my sleeping bag, because it was so cold, trying so hard not to puke (you don’t want to be the one who pukes, believe me!). I was not able to lift my head, because I didn’t want to pop like a puke-filled balloon.

After 22 hours we arrived at our first stop, Kolamaafushi Island in Gaaf Alif Atoll. I got myself together and took a shower, changed my clothes and set foot on the harbour, and the first thing I saw was the beautiful monument that was built for fishermen’s day.

On top there was a banner stating: ‘Welcome to the first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Nasheed’.

After become acquainted with the friendly, welcoming people of Kolamaafushi, MDP Youth Wing Leader Aminath Shauna and I went to the island’s MDP office, and we arranged our policy workshop. A handful of people joined us for the workshop, mostly people who’ve previously worked in the island’s health post or utilities company, people who’ve lost their jobs due to political reasons.

I was really glad to see a couple of elders and single mothers in this small crowd, it was what you would call ‘A little bit of everything.’ Shauna explained to them what the MDP had achieved in government during the past three years, and how many lives have been changed over the few years we were able to serve in government. For instance, in Kolamaafushi alone 889 people were covered by some sort of social protection program, and Shauna explained that Nasheed’s administration had spent about 4.2 million rufiya (US$272,000) for that.

That was just Kolamaafushi. We discussed housing projects, infrastructure and education, we were told by someone from the group that the pass percentage had increased to 62 percent in 2011, which I thought was remarkable. And it elated me to see how fired up they were and how determined they were to increase the pass percentage to even higher in the coming years.

When Shauna concluded her presentation, the islanders began to express their thoughts. They told us they haven’t seen a single laari of the ‘Disability & Single Parent’ benefit for the past three months. They said they had not been able to purchase medicine from the local pharmacy. The island’s Women’s Development Committee had set up the pharmacy, but the health corporation acquired the place and had decided to stop services.

They expressed anger at having to travel to a neighboring island for shopping and for medicine. I thought to myself, why are they complaining about that? The neighboring island isn’t that far, and then there’s the nation-wide state transport system, introduced by the MDP during President Nasheed’s administration. But then I got a ‘slap in the face’ from the locals: apparently the state transport service has not been consistent at all. What really made me upset was seeing so many young people without a job or education. I thought to myself, the ‘Skill [Hunaru] program’ could have changed the lives of a few of these youngsters, maybe a whole bunch in five years.

That day I realised it is not that these kids want to live off their parents. They want to earn a honest living. They just want opportunity, for someone to believe in them and to give them the chance, to change their lives. Someone to take an interest in them, someone or even a program to drive them to where they need to be.

After hearing all that, it suddenly didn’t matter that I had to shower in a small cube, or that I had to sleep on a mat most nights. It was a small price to pay to see what I saw in person, and of course the islands were so beautiful. It is true what Anni said, even if you’ve lived your whole life here, you can’t fail to be impressed by the beauty of these islands.

The trip made me realise that there’s so much we could do to change the lives of the hopeful people of this country, from the youngster who has just finished his A-levels to the diabetic single mother with three kids who needs constant medication.

Waheed and the government coalition boast about making tough decisions, but never took them. They seem to lack the confidence and guts to take risks. I personally believe we were on the right track.

It was so comforting to learn that the things that mattered the most for the people of these islands were health care, transport, social security, and anything that would help their daily lives. I believe that these were the kind of real, concrete, lasting changes President Mohamed Nasheed and MDP government brought, and I am convinced that they are the kind of radical changes that Kolamaafushi and the rest of the country desperately needs.

We must link the great divides in this country – and where better to start than the gap between the islands and the capital?

I have learned a lot. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I’m so glad that I went.

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