The Fisherman’s Boat

STORY OF Ahmed Zain
WRITTEN BY M. Ataur Rahman Chowdhury in association with Abul Ehtesham Abdul Muhaimen and Ali Wasif

Maldives Islamic Bank is the first and only sharia-compliant bank operating in the Maldives. The idea of establishing an Islamic bank in the Maldives was first conceived in early 2009 following the global financial crisis. The Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD), the private sector arm of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), worked with the Government of the Maldives to officially launch the Maldives Islamic Bank in 2011. From its humble beginnings, it has grown become one of the most reputable banks in the country and is an active player in promoting the growth and development of Islamic finance in the Maldives.

My father always told me that an easy catch is never a valuable catch. Passion was instilled in me from an early age and ran through the blood of my ancestors, most of whom had been fishermen on the small island of Fares Maathodaa. From the age of 10, my father took me along with him on the riya dhoni, a traditional Maldivian boat that he captained, spending our weekends deep-sea fishing for tuna. I still remember the day he taught me how to fish. We spent the morning breathing in the salty air, watching the turquoise waves dance gently through the cool, serene waters. “Ahmed, pay attention,” my father said as he knotted the line tightly to the hook and placed the rod into my small hands.

We would sit patiently on the wooden floor of our boat, eyes fully focused, until we saw the fishing line strain. Then we pulled with all our might, until we had caught whatever riches the ocean had decided to offer us that day. Around noon, we would moor the boat and walk over the beach, carrying the results of our blood, sweat and tears in straw baskets. The sand beneath our feet was scorching hot so we walked quickly, selling what we could to passers-by. Usually we managed to sell a large portion to the collector vessels that were around, and the rest to the island community.

In the Maldives, fishing is a seasonal activity with fisheries peaking from the beginning of the warm iruvai monsoon, which begins in late November and lasts until the end of April. It is during this time that schools of tuna start migrating through the oceans of the Maldives. But for the next six months, during the hulhangu monsoon, the catch is often low and sometimes not enough to recover the costs of the trip or to feed our families.

During these trying times, my father would tell me to always have sabr (patience)and that Allah would provide. “The absence of patience is the absence of faith, my son. You must trust the process for good things to come your way,” he would say. I remember him giving me these life lessons as we walked home hand in hand; my small hand always protected by his larger, stronger one. We took whatever leftover fish we had home for dinner, and spent the evenings preparing it. I will always remember the sunsets that brought so much color into our lives. Myriads of bronze, magenta and pink glistening on the fish’s scales as we grilled it over an open fire.

Soon I moved to Thinadoo, the capital of Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, to complete my GCE O levels. I was encouraged by my father to gain qualifications, as he believed education would pave the way for a better life, although I continued fishing during weekends, holidays and whenever possible. My favorite memories of my childhood are mainly that of my father, and the fishing trips I went on with my friends. We would compete to see who could catch the biggest fish, and I would always win. I had decided that I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to give back to my community and to put into practice everything my father had taught me. 

After my GCE O levels, I took a Niyami Course to become a certified navigator and joined a fishing crew on my island, turning my long-lived passion into a career. I spent four years captaining a boat for State Trading Organization, and another two years on a fishing vessel belonging to someone else. I was 24 years old and fishing for a livelihood when everything changed in the financial crisis of 2009. 

"One day, a fisherman at the port told me about an initiative that was helping local fisherman purchase their own vessels."

Despite being the captain of a vessel, the money I took home was severely reduced. Since I was now the main income earner for my family, it became difficult to make ends meet. The amount and price of raw fish being bought by industrial collector vessels dropped dramatically due to a decline in exports to Europe and Asia. The fishing industry shrank by 22% due to a combination of decreased export demand, rising costs of fuel and shifting ocean currents. These were difficult times for all Maldivians as we endured a period of economic hardship and austerity. 

During this time, it dawned on me that had I owned the vessel I captained, I would have been able to give a better return to my crew and take home a bigger share for my family. The only trouble was, I couldn’t afford it. But I was determined to accomplish my dream and started saving little by little, not knowing if I would ever have enough. 

One day, a fisherman at the port told me about an initiative that was helping local fisherman purchase their own vessels. The initiative was run by the Maldives Islamic Bank (MIB), a relatively new bank, which had been established following the global financial meltdown. The bank’s core philosophy was to improve the livelihoods of everyday Maldivians like me, by providing financial support to enhance their socio-economic well-being. Importantly, the fisherman explained, it was the first sharia-compliant bank in the Maldives, launched by the Islamic Corporation for the Development of the Private Sector (ICD) – the private sector arm of IsDB, with the support of the Maldives government. 

"I am grateful to MIB, a sharia-compliant bank that conforms to the Islamic values and principles that I was raised with."

It sounded almost too good to be true. But I remembered my father’s advice and put my trust in Allah and in 2016, I applied to the MIB’s Vessel Financing Facility. I was overcome with joy when I learnt that my application had been approved, and I could receive financing to purchase my own fishing vessel. I chose a 75-foot modern vessel named Gallery Mission, one of the most beautiful boats I had ever seen. It was cream colored with natural wood trimmings and a timber deck; a far cry from the humble bohkura boat I sailed on as a kid. 

In 2019, I was even given the opportunity to upgrade the engine, so the vessel would be faster, cover a longer distance and have a quicker turnaround time. I now have a total of 28 crew members who are all employed under me. I pay them good salaries to provide for their young, growing families and ensure bonuses for those who are most dedicated. I was even able to sponsor two of my siblings to complete their bachelor’s degrees and thus fulfill my father’s dream for all his children to be educated. 

I am grateful to MIB, a sharia-compliant bank that conforms to the Islamic values and principles that I was raised with. No matter how much bait I used, I would never have been able to purchase or expand my vessel so extensively without the bank’s help. Every now and then, when the Gallery Mission returns from a week-long fishing trip, I catch a glimpse of my father waiting at the shore, watching as my boat comes in. 

I am overcome with pride and emotion thinking of how far I’ve come with my father’s guidance; he was always the anchor in my life that kept me grounded. I learnt through him that although I cannot change the direction of the wind, I can always adjust my sails to reach my final destination.