A group of former British Royal Air Force (RAF) servicemen who were based at Gan in the 70s have set up a fund to improve medical care in Addu Atoll, the country’s southern group of islands.
In March this year, 28 ex-personnel who had worked in the atoll returned to Gan for a reunion, where they were saddened by the decline in medical standards since their departure.
Richard Houlston, 62, who spent a year in the early 1970s working in ground communications on the island of Hithadhoo said: “All of us servicemen enjoyed our time in the Maldives, and the feeling among us was that we wanted to give something back to the community. I feel a close affinity to Addu, it was as if I had never left.”
Richard worked on the HF Transmitters on the isle of Hithadhoo, at the far end of the horse-shoe shaped atoll of Addu from November 1969 until 1970. He and his comrades would visit nearby Gan for scuba diving lessons and shopping trips.
“My memories of Hithadhoo were all good,” said Houlston. “I loved the climate, I loved messing about in the boats we had there, I loved fishing and swimming, I spent many hours snorkeling on the reef, I learnt to scuba dive. When I arrived back on Addu my first impressions were that it seems to be more built up now than when I was there, and obviously has some quite well-off inhabitants, but many people seem to be quite poor. Many of the inhabitants still have to rely on rain water for drinking, stored in large tanks and in those sorts of temperatures that can’t be good for health,” he said.
“When we arrived back on Addu, it became obvious to us very quickly that what they needed help with most was medical care. To go to a decent hospital, many locals have to travel all the way to India, which is a 1000 mile-plus journey. There is a hospital on the island of Hithadhoo, but standards there are very poor: even if they have the equipment, no-one has the expertise to use it.”
When the RAF was in Gan, islanders used to enjoy first class medical facilities for free. Now they have third world services and people must pay for their treatment. The 30 year dictatorship and focus on development of Male’ did not help matters.
Now Houlston and Larry Dodds have set up the Gan Scholarship Fund, which aims to raise enough money to help train more medical staff and improve the standard of medical equipment in the atoll.
“The thing that concerns us most is the fact that many inhabitants have to travel to India for decent medical facilities. Addu is so remote that they need their own medical facilities on hand. When the RAF was there they had those facilities, but when we pulled out in 1976 they were left with nothing,” Houlston said.
“I know there were political issues at the time that did not help their situation, but I feel we have a moral obligation to try to help them now if we can. I feel very passionate about this, and I know that many of the guys I was there with in March feel the same way.”
Their idea is to try and raise enough money to pay for the training of one medical student from Addu, so they can then work in the hospital on nearby Hithadhoo. Much of the hospital equipment is also outdated and needs to be replaced.
“The original plan was to appeal to the RAF personnel who had served on Gan over the years to donate money towards the scheme, now I do not now that this is going to be enough, so I am trying to come up with ideas to help supplement this. I am open to suggestions,” Houlston admitted.
Returning to the Addu Atoll a year ago was an emotional journey for the group, who share many fond memories of their time on the island. Houlston said that his time in the Maldives had left a lasting impression on him, and that he and his former colleagues had been touched by the people of Gan’s enthusiasm when they returned.
“We had such a wonderful welcome on the reunion trip to Addu in March of this year, that it rekindled my love for Addu and its people,” he said.
“The RAF had not visited the Maldives for over 30 years, but the reception was incredible. Children from primary schools danced for us, they arranged trips for us, and thousands of people greeted us wherever we went.”
“It was a very moving experience,” he added. Richard is now in daily contact with people from Addu and is working with both Hithadhoo Regional Hospital and the IDMC private hospital, soon to be Hawwa Trust, which will help provide the next generation of medical doctors along with the help of some former friends from the Royal Air Force.
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