During her childhood she longed to go somewhere else. Today, she is working to change the place she once tried to get away from. The journalist Lubna Hawwa from The Maldives is studying in Lund with a set goal to be able to return home.
Lubna Hawwa is four years old when she is at kindergarten in a simple building with thirty other children on Malé, the main island of The Maldives. Her mother leaves her there in the morning, and the other children are playing outside, among trees and white sand. One day, her teacher shows her a map of the world. In an old school atlas, she points at The Maldives. Lubna Hawwa stares at the map and can hardly believe her eyes when she sees the small, scattered islands in the Indian Ocean. Up until that day, she thought that her little island was everything there was. But what the map shows her is something completely different, and suddenly, she feels scared. The other continents tower aloft next to the blue ocean. She looks at her teacher, startled:
“Why are we so small? And how can I go there when I can’t swim?”
Lubna Hawwa can’t remember what the teacher answered. But she remembers that it was from that day on she wanted to travel outside her own country and understood that it was the ocean that separated them.
She became curious. In school, she could ask anything, and it was where she learned about the world outside.
Even though she had moved to the small southern island Hithadhoo following her parents divorce, she stayed at her school. Her mother told her that it was through further studies that she would be able to find a better job, something that her mother never had the possibility to do. Lubna Hawwa began studying, and the more she learnt about the people and the place where she lived, the stronger her dream of a better life became.
“I said I wanted to do a PhD, without even knowing what it involved. I only knew I wanted to continue studying and reach as far as I possibly could, and that it was the only thing that could take me outside Hithadhoo and The Maldives,” she says.
It’s the middle of September and the air is unusually warm. Although others are sweating, Lubna Hawwa is wearing a dark green, lined jacket and doesn’t seem to think it’s particularly warm at all. She smiles a lot when we talk, even though what she is talking about is not always funny. She makes jokes about her small country, climate changes that are threatening to drown the islands, and their vulnerability. The overpopulation and the inequality. About growing up with just enough to make it through the day and nothing left over for something extra.
“For a long time, I was embarrassed, and I wished for another childhood. I whished I never had to struggle as much as I did. Now, I have accepted my past and I’m thinking that it could help me to better understand other people,” she says.
The most common question she gets is ‘What’s it like to grow up in paradise?’ Every time she has mixed feelings. What does one answer when the answer is already in the question?
“They are immediately thinking about palm trees, turquoise oceans and white beaches. Why are they not asking me about what people’s lives are like there? No one from The Maldives would say it’s like paradise, and very few have seen a tourist location.
When Lubna Hawwa moved back to the main island Malé as a 16-year old, to be able to continue studying, it was harder than she had imagined. Living in an apartment packed with too many students and stuck in an overpopulated urban jungle, she was supposed to provide for herself at the same time as she was studying. She moved often and was, at times, homeless.
When the dictatorship was beginning to disperse in 2008, many new radio and tv-stations were founded. Lubna Hawwa’s friend worked at a radio station and became her foothold in journalism.
“To be honest, I had no idea what journalism was about before that. The more I learnt, the more I liked it. Now I had the opportunity to tell people’s stories and reach out to other people with it,” she says.
However, studying at the same time as working didn’t give her top grades. The scholarships offered by the government of The Maldives for going abroad to study were only offered to those who had the best grades. Lubna Hawwa got nothing. But after applying for scholarships through the Swedish Institute she got the opportunity to continue studying. When she came to Lund in the autumn of 2012, she was overwhelmed by all the space and the feeling of being somewhere where things are happening.
“It felt like I was at the ground zero of the world. People told me that Lund is a very small town, but in comparison to The Maldives, everything is big.”
It was not only about physical space but also about space to think.
“Sweden opened the door in order for me to be able to think and express myself as I pleased. I will be going back to The Maldives as a different person,” she says.
Even though her childhood was, to a great extent, about getting away, she talks a lot about her own country with devotion and for a long time. Committed to giving it a place on the map and trying to change the society. Because even though she has reached her goal of getting away, The Maldives pulls her back, and there is no doubt when asked if she will be going back one day.
“Change starts where your home is. I’m going to move back and work on The Maldives, but the question is if The Maldives wants me back,” she says.
Because maybe, the population of the little islands don’t want her help. Maybe most people are satisfied with the way they live.
“The Maldives is like a small bubble. People spend their whole lives there without experiencing anything else,” she says.
But Lubna Hawwa wants to give the people of The Maldives an alternative, to show that something else is possible.
“It’s up to them if they want to live their whole life on an island in the Indian Ocean, but I want to give them the possibility to choose something else,” she says.
- Age: 23
- Do: Studying development studies in Lund and is a journalist working for SASNET (Swedish South Asia Network).
- Family: Nine siblings “I’m the lucky number 8.”
- Hopes for the future: Influence development policies of The Maldives.
- Favourite quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
Text: Tove Nordén
Photo: Daniel Kodipelli
Translation: Mia Söllwander