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Published: February 6th 2018
His name is Kokko. I told him my cat has the same name, Coco.
I learned later that our young Maldivian guide’s nickname means “little brother.” His formal name is “Ibrahim Abdul Sattar.”
He is also more charming than my cat, and a lot less furry. And unlike my cat who barely shares the house with me, Kokko enjoys sharing his country with travelers from around the world.
As I frequently discover in my travels, everyone is special in some way. Kokko is no exception. He is working on a project—but more about that later.
When I arrived in the capital city of Male with my traveling companion, chaos seemed to reign on the busy streets. Everyone seemed to be moving something—crates of fruit, boxes, carts, fish, and motor bikes, which crawl like hordes of ants on the streets. I later learned that for every one driver in Male, there are three motor bikes.
Most women walked the streets with the hijab head covering, known as a burka in Male. Many wore the black head-to-toe garb without the face covering, called an abaya. This is an Islamic country. But tourists, clad in shorts and sleeveless dresses,
wander among them, and seem to draw no special attention.
The chaos started making sense once we met Kokko, who walked us through the narrow paved streets of Male, revealing some of its secrets.
Each house in this city of 160,000 has a specific name which remains the same throughout its life. There are four districts, and a good taxi driver learns the names of the houses in each district, rather than a numbered address, which doesn’t exist.
Drivers are quite courteous to pedestrians—you just have to hold a hand out to stop traffic while you cross the street. Schools are marked by its own color on their gate and on their sports uniforms. A school motto or slogan is posted on the gate and the school’s mission is stated on a board in the schoolyard. Public education and health care are provided by the government to all for free.
The oldest mosque, known as Hukuru Miskiiy, dates from 1656, and during its life has been moved at least twice. Joints in the carved coral stone and wood show how people sectioned the structure in order to move it. Gravestones nearby are of varying sizes—the taller
gravestones indicate that the deceased had closer connections with the sultan and thus achieved greater respect. According to Kokko, the stones with a projection on top belonged to a man, the rounded top was for a woman.
After donning long sleeves, pants, and head scarves, we entered the small mosque, a very peaceful place except for the man running the vacuum over the carpeted floors. The teak, red sandalwood, and redwood framed doors and domes displayed intricate carvings, Arabic writings, and spots of red from the original paint. Patterned carvings adorned the coral stone exterior.
Other public places include the three story Islamic center that holds over 5,000 people, the wall that commemorates the soldier and seven others who lost their lives during an invasion of Tamil Tigers in 1988, the 13-story government building that was the tallest on the island for many years until recently, and the burial place of the sultan who converted to Islam in AD 1153—thus changing the country’s religion from Buddhism to Islam.
Kokko endured our questions and teasing, and even invited us to ask him anything, because he would not be offended, he claimed.
Over the next couple days we
moved on to the island of Guraidhoo, a 2 1/2-hour ferry ride away, where life really slows down. Not only did I get a chance to play several fierce games of gin rummy with him, I also had a chance to ask about his own life and dreams.
Kokko is the middle of five brothers, who all still live with their mother in Hulhumale, a man-made island reached by a 20 minute ferry ride from Male. His father left when he was young, and is now out of the picture.
He speaks highly of his mother—a strong woman, he says, whom all his brothers adore and respect. They help her as much as possible, but they haven’t mastered cooking, except for an egg or instant noodles now and then. He said his family is so close that they don’t really want to leave one another—the oldest is 30 years, Kokko is 26, and none of them are thinking of getting married.
I was intrigued most by Kokko’s interest in stories. Not in telling them to travelers, but in learning about the stories that his countrymen carry in their hearts.
About nine years ago he had an
opportunity to travel to some of the country’s twelve hundred islands, conducting surveys and interviewing people along the way. He started asking people about their island—what is special, or interesting, or what has happened in their lives. People talked. The more they talked, the more he realized that the world did not just revolve around him—there were other people, and they all shared in this life, and they are all equal.
“I have a purpose,” he said. “I have ambition now. I want to do something—not to be famous, really, but I want to do something. I like to talk, I like to listen.” He wants to continue to collect the stories of the people of the different islands, and write them in a book to share with not only younger Maldivians, but also travelers.
“Teaching Maldivian history is not in the school curriculum. It needs to be included as a subject. I fear that young people, with their IPhones and time spent on Facebook don’t know their history. They don’t know about our public landmarks and buildings, they don’t know about the people who sacrificed their lives for this country. They need to know these things and
carry this knowledge to future generations.”
He remembers the story of the once happy family of parents, a son, and two daughters. But a tree crashed onto their house, killing the only son. Soon after, the father died from the shock of the loss. The distraught mother, weak with grief, fainted and fell into a fire, severely burning one side of her body. Yet years later, the mother has recovered, and the two daughters are happily married.
The story, told to Kokko by the survivors, moved him to tears, he said, yet he hungers to collect more stories like that one. More stories to feed his heart. More stories to feed the hearts and minds of the people of his country, and those of travelers who seek the beauty of the Maldives turquoise waters and ocean breezes.
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