The Maldives Alliance Francaise held its Francophonie’s Day today, with painters and poets working in the shade of Sultans Park to create a ‘Male’ Montmartre’ – sans Moulin Rouge.
The day began with a elaborate French brunch on the terrace of the National Library, overlooking the park, with both members and non-members enjoying coffee, croissants and a spectacular array of artisan cheeses from across France.
In the cool of the afternoon, the Le Printemps des poètes (Spring of Poetry) saw the recitation for poetry in Dhivehi, French and English, accompanied by traditional music including the Maldivian flute, dolki and kottafoshi.
School children participated in an creative workshop led by local artists, while this evening at 9:00pm the Alliance Francaise will host a cafe-concert at Seahouse.
President of the Maldives’ Alliance Francaise, Mohamed Ismail ‘Sikka’ Maniku, said this was the second year the organisation had decided to hold a Francophonie Day.
The purpose, he explained, was not only to teach French and celebrate French culture, “but our culture as well.”
“[The Alliance Francaise] is something really good that we have in Male’, because our youth need something much more concrete. They should have a place to go in the evenings,” he said.
“It’s not only about French classes. Youth [in Male’] lack focus. When you open a class it’s full, but after three months the numbers drop – that says a lot. We are trying to see how we can change this culture and show how people can engage with a goal, and keep an end in mind.”
Sikka proposed the idea of a ‘language house’, teaching not only French but other languages such as Spanish and Italian.
“Of course we do our part [and teach French], bu the main thing would be to engage young people, perhaps with a coffee house, so when they come out of lessons there is a place for them to talk,” he suggested.
“It should be a proper institution where people can come and learn a language and a culture. I think a language house is really important right now – we are a country with a service-oriented industry, so when you are able to communicate in another language it makes a huge difference.
“I remember long ago when Kurumba was opened I happened to be at the reception. There was a lady, sweating profusely, who was trying to communicate with the guy at the desk. I suspect he didn’t really know English – this was 1972. But then I realised she was a French lady, and the moment I said ‘Bonjour Madam’, she relaxed. If we want to deal with these people, we must know their language, we must know their culture.”
Sikka’s own introduction to French culture began with a job in Foreign Affairs after he had completed his O’levels in Sri Lanka. With an interest in foreign relations sparked, he returned to complete his A’levels, and on a whim he walked into the French Embassy in Colombo and asked if he could study in France.
“I remember the guy in the embassy asked where the Maldives was,” Sikka recalls. “But he said OK, and a week later he called me to say the French Ambassador wanted to see me. The Ambassador was very interested – and asked me: ‘Why France?’ I said that I had come to know that France was the best place to do study international relations.”
Within a month Sikka had a scholarship: “It was much later that i realised it happened because they were interested in it, I was lucky, and because there was a scholarship not utilised by Sri Lanka at the time I went in for it. The thinking was – ‘since it was not being utilised, why not give it to me?’”
Sikka studied in France for three years and returned to continue working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Later I wasI sent to the Maldives High Commission in Colombo, so my language was kept fresh, as well as the interest. I felt I owed something to both countries because of the opportunities I was given.”
Sikka became consul in France to the Maldives but it was only three years ago that an Alliance Francaise was opened in Male’.
Sikka says he hopes Maldivians will learn to become more connected to their own culture.
“Many people are probably not enough connected, for so many reasons,” he says. “We don’t learn about our own culture. My generation knew a little bit more, and we preserve it. But then there was a period when this was lacking.
“[Cultural education] should start in the schools – students should come more often to places like the museum, should be told what our forefathers did, what their sacrifices were, how they lived. I’m from a generation that knew a big wall around Male’, when there were only a few places you could enter. And once when I returned from school holidays there was no more wall.”
Among the changes since then, the greatest has been the recent tranisition to democracy, he says.
“A lot of us suffered under the old system, by not being in the thought of the government at that period. It was not because people were necessarily against them, but because [the government] had a perception that anyone who did not tow their line was against them. That fear is now gone.”
For more information on the Alliance Francaise in Male’ and its activities, visit http://afmaldives.org/