From the moment you enter the vast lagoon of Kelaa, to when you close in on the neatly lined palms gently swaying a welcome to you, Kelaa never fails to astound a visitor. The mangroves that run along the rocky beach (futtaru) of Kelaa just adds to the already incredible biodiversity, beauty, and history of this island.
At a total area of 162,433 m3, Kelaa’s mangrove system is one of the biggest kandoofaa (small leafed orange mangrove areas) in the Maldives. Besides the small leafed orange mangrove (Dhivehi: Kandoo, Scientific: Bruguiera Cylindrica), the other dominant type of mangrove present here is the Ornamental Mangrove (Dhivehi: Bodavaki, Scientific name: Bruguiera Gymnorrhiza). In addition to Kandoo and Bodavaki, this mangrove system has pockets of Black mangrove (Dhivehi: Burevi, Scientific: Lumnitzera racemos), Loop Root Mangrove/ Red mangrove (Dhivehi: Randoo, Scientific: Rhizophora mucronata) and Mangrove Apple (Dhivehi: Kulhlhava, Scientific: Sonneratia caseolaris).
Kelaa’s Kandoofaa during Bodu Thadhu
The use of kandoo as a food source in Kelaa has an interesting history. While it has always been a source of food in Kelaa, kandoo gained particular importance during the Second World War. The effects of the war reached Maldivian shores in the form of extreme food shortage which resulted in a big famine, locally referred to as bodu thadhu. During this time, islands with kandoofaa were among the most food secure populations, Kelaa among them. While the majority of the country was starving, having an abundant supply of kandoo made the people of Kelaa and surrounding islands much more food secure. Dried breadfruit was also used as a staple food source due to its abundance on the island. Kandoo is eaten even today, but is consumed more rarely as a delicacy.
With kandoo being so closely linked to food security, there were strict regulations for how people could interact with Kelaa’s kandoofaa. In the past, the island office regulated the kandoofaa area and oversaw the harvesting of kandoo, which was limited to only Wednesdays and Saturdays. The women of Kelaa would go in groups to collect kandoo in their palm leaf baskets (vashi). From there, the baton was passed to the men who would transport the collected kandoo from the mangroves to the community food storage (Rayyithunge Card ge).
As per island regulations, half of what was collected had to be donated to the community food storage. Only then could the collectors pocket the remaining half. From the Kandoo that people got to take home, usually by the end of the month each household would be able to save 1 bag (1 basthaa) of Kandoo per month after having used it as their main food.
Each month, locals and people from nearby islands would gather to Kelaa to participate in peeling the skin of the kandoo (this is known as kandoo kehun). This particular day would be allocated in advance, and was an event that locals took very seriously. A special knife (kandoo valhi) with a long handle and a very short blade was used to peel the Kandoo.
Of course, one could not come empty handed to take a share in the bounty of Kelaa’s kandoofa. People from neighboring islands would bring gifts such as garudhiya and dried fish (speciallly bandaidhoo). In return, they got some kandoo and stems of papaya trees to take home to their families. Times were so hard that some there are some local accounts of Vashafaru people saving even the peeled skin of kandoo. They are said to have asked for the peelers to not mix the peeled skin with the soil. Instead, they were saved and taken back to Vashafaru where food was so scarce that even the skin of kandoo was valuable.
Mangroves were not only an important food source, but the large old trees could be sold as hardwood timber to build the hulls of boats. The ones with long and straight trunks are used as push poles (rih dhandi) by smaller boats (bokkuraa/fathiyaa). It was also used to build the roods and as timber columns at residential houses as it is a durable hardwood. Since mangroves were such a huge source of food security for the local populations, logging of mangroves for any purpose without permission was considered to be a crime.
Preparation of Kandoo
Kandoo harvesting and cooking in itself is quite the process, and on an island like Kelaa with abundant Kandoo, the locals have mastered the art of preparing it.
Raw kandoo is tough and bitter in texture and taste. To make it edible, peeled kandoo is first covered in Breadfruit leaves and a small ball of ash and is boiled in water. Kandoo is usually boiled continuously until it softens and the bitterness disappears. During the preparation, water is added as it gets boiled off to ensure that the kandoo is ready. After this, the kandoo is washed 6-8 times until some color and all the bitterness are gone for good. After this, kandoo is then dried in the sun for a few days before being stored in bags. Stored kandoo can keep for about a year, and some used to be sent to Male’ to be sold (Male’ not having any mangrove areas, this was a good market).
Once the kandoo is prepared, it is eaten with garudhiya (fish soup), grilled fish, freshly grated coconut along with lime, chillies and sliced onion as condiments. Kandoo takes the place of what would usually be plantains or rice.
The effort that goes into the preparation of kandoo even inspired a Dhivehi proverb: “Emeeheh kehi kandulugge hithi filuvaanee emeehekeve.” This directly translates to “You are responsible for removing the bitterness of the kandoo you pick”. This saying is used to imply that if you begin something, you must stick with it till the end.
Today, due to the availability of rice at a cheap price, locals have stopped harvesting kandoo. The importance of kandoo as a food source has diminished in Kelaa, and the kandoofa has experienced overgrowth in recent years. As a result, the quality of trees has lowered and now the kandoo trees do not bear enough fruit (kandoo).
During the second world war, the RAF base was built near the kandoofa and elders recall that the soldiers hung boxes full of oil-like liquid in the kandoofa. It was said that these liquids were hung to repel mosquitoes, but this had a negative effect on mangroves. Some trees were killed and most of the trees became weak and, according to the elders, seem to not have recovered since.
The history of the kandoofaa of Kelaa shows the important part mangrove forests have to play during a food shortage. Indeed, they saved the people of Kelaa from bodu thadhu and could save them again during famine. In this way (and many others), kandoofaa is an important natural resource that must be fiercely protected in the interest of our food security as a nation.