Lathee Verrall – A heart anchored in two islands

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 14 minutes

Lathee Verrall has taught English in New Zealand, Singapore, and the Maldives. Since she retired from her teaching career, she has published two books and is working on a third.. With such a track record, one might be surprised that English isn't her first language, for she was brought up with Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives. Alina Suchanski tells the story.

“My heart is anchored in two of the most beautiful places in the world – the gentle, exquisite islands and waters of the Maldives, and the awe-inspiring remote wilderness of Fiordland, New Zealand,” Verrall writes in the first paragraph of her autobiographical volume Growing up in the Maldives in the 1950s and 1960s.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 14 minutes

Lathee Verrall has taught English in New Zealand, Singapore, and the Maldives. Since she retired from her teaching career, she has published two books and is working on a third.. With such a track record, one might be surprised that English isn’t her first language, for she was brought up with Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives. Alina Suchanski tells the story.

“My heart is anchored in two of the most beautiful places in the world – the gentle, exquisite islands and waters of the Maldives, and the awe-inspiring remote wilderness of Fiordland, New Zealand,” Verrall writes in the first paragraph of her autobiographical volume Growing up in the Maldives in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although the Maldives and New Zealand are both island countries, they could not be more different.

The Republic of Maldives is an archipelago of coral islands grouped in atolls in the Indian Ocean, near the equator. Flat, with maximum elevation of only 5.1 metres and a hot tropical climate punctuated by monsoons, this tiny country off the west coast of Sri Lanka scores a few ‘mosts’ in the world. According to Wikipedia, the Maldives is the lowest country in the world, with more than 80 per cent of its land rising less than one metre above sea level. As a result, the Maldives are at high risk of submerging and becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels. Consisting of 1,192 islands spread over 90,000 square kilometres, of which only 298km2 is dry land, it’s also one of the world’s most dispersed countries and the smallest country in Asia. Islam has been the official religion of the Maldives since the 12th century, built on the strong foundations of Buddhism that prevailed in the country for 1400 years prior.

Latheefa (Lathee) Ahmed Maniku was born in 1950 in the Maldives capital, Male, when the post war depression had reduced the country’s population from 80,000 to 40,000. Lathee lost her mother to typhoid when she was just two years old and her sister Abida was four. They were the youngest of six siblings. Their father remarried soon after his wife’s death and moved away, taking the four oldest of his children with him, leaving Lathee and Abida to be brought up by their maternal grandmother and their aunt, Aminath. Those two women were their role models “whose love, intelligence and generosity formed the solid, unshakeable bedrock of my universe,” Verrall writes in her autobiography.

 

The sisters grew up in their grandmother’s one-bedroom house shared with several other members of the family. A small living room was a hub for gatherings of family and friends, with an old wooden table serving as the centrepiece of family life. This is where they played, read, talked, and listened to stories. “Without radios, television or even clocks, people woke up to the sound of the roosters and the penetrating call of the koveli, the Maldivian cuckoo. Life started without rush and continued to be regulated by the sun,” Verrall remembers.

At a time when most Maldivian women could not read well, both Verrall’s grandmother and her aunt were avid readers who passed their love of books onto young Lathee who, from a young age, showed an aptitude for languages. As a child she learned to read and write in Arabic, Urdu, and of course, Dhivehi. She started learning English when she was seven and took to it like a duck to water. At age 13, she was one of four students selected to study English in preparation for the London General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination, which was a chance to win a scholarship for secondary teaching. In 1967, after four years’ studying, she was the first locally-educated Maldivian to pass the GCE examination, an achievement that changed her life forever.

With limited knowledge of other countries in the world, it was difficult for 17-year-old Lathee to decide where to further her education. Out of the many countries offering scholarships, she chose New Zealand because “there were no snakes there”.

When she arrived in New Zealand to study at Otago University, Lathee found herself in a country vastly different to the one she’d left behind. The geography, language, culture, religion, climate – even the people were different. She credits the Mathiesons, her host family in Wellington where she spent her first three months in New Zealand, for falling in love with this country. She had to learn a lot, fast. “My world changed to a concoction of new experiences: replacing Eid [a Muslim religious festival] with Christmas, taking long trips in cars, washing in warm baths, wearing layers of clothes, eating potatoes, speaking in a foreign language, and thinking in my own language, sleeping under blankets, eating meat, walking up and down hills,” Verrall writes in her book.

She was surprised to find out that to become a secondary school teacher she needed to complete two more years at high school and pass University Entrance exams. She enrolled at New Plymouth Girls’ High School for two years (1968-69) that not only prepared her better for university, but also helped her adjust to the new culture, make new friends, and absorb the nuances of the English language. So much so, that she won the secondary student section of the 1969 countrywide essay writing competition on the topic of ‘New Zealand’s Responsibility in a Hungry World’.

“At 18, I realised that I could be both Maldivian and Kiwi. I made a decision to fit in, but I wasn’t going to give up being Maldivian while adjusting to Kiwi life,” she proclaims.

The following three years Lathee spent at Otago University studying history, English and anthropology. She boarded at St Margaret College hostel for the first two years and in her final year shared a house with four university friends.

Having gained her bachelor’s degree, she persevered with her goal to become a teacher and spent a year at the Christchurch College of Education obtaining her secondary teaching qualification.

During that year, Lathee met a fellow student, Bill Verrall, and they fell in love. However, Lathee came to New Zealand with a solemn resolution that she would not marry a New Zealander. She owed a bond to the Maldivian government for sending her overseas to study, and she was determined to repay her bond, which was to work as a teacher in the Maldives for five years. She also felt obliged to support her extended family.

Despite the awakening feelings for Bill, Lathee decided to return to her country to pay back her debt to the government and her family. She started teaching English at a high school in Male. What followed were two years of correspondence with Bill. In their letters, they talked about the possibility of Lathee returning to New Zealand. It was hard to choose between the man she loved and the love of her family, her job, and her students, but after two years, she made up her mind and followed her heart back to Aotearoa.

Bill and Lathee got married in 1976. At the time, Bill worked at Kingswell High in Invercargill and Lathee was lucky to get a job there too. Their daughter Ayesha was born in 1981, and two years later, Lathee gave birth to Saeeda.

In 1984, when Ayesha was three and Saeeda only nine months, their parents took them to the Maldives for two years, so Lathee could finish her bond. Bill got a job teaching Maldivian and English history, while Lathee taught English language and literature. Ayesha was enrolled at a Montessori school in Male.

“Financially, it was the worst decision for us because what we earned wasn’t enough to survive. It was also the best decision because our kids benefitted so much from the experience. It taught them that a person’s value is not measured in money. They got to know their cousins well, and by the time we left, they were bilingual,” Lathee says.

Once Lathee completed her bond, the Verralls returned to New Zealand where Bill resumed his work at Kingswell High. Later he became principal of Fiordland College in Te Anau and the family moved to this small settlement on the edge of Fiordland National Park. Eventually Lathee also joined the college staff as an English teacher.

Both Verrall girls turned out to be highfliers.

Saeeda studied law and works as a human rights lawyer for the United Nations in Geneva. As a war crime prosecutor, she is currently investigating the genocide committed by Myanmar’s military on the Rohingya Muslims.

The Verrall family on the day of Ayesha’s induction into the Parliament. From right Ayesha Verrall, Bill Verrall, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Lathee Verrall, Ayesha’s partner Alice Revell and her daughter Laila.
Photo supplied

Ayesha studied medicine and later trained in tropical medicine, bioethics, and international health. In 2018, she completed a PhD in tuberculosis epidemiology. Two years later, she joined the Labour Party and became a Member of Parliament with a portfolio including Minister for Food Safety, Minister for Seniors, Associate Minister of Health, and Associate Minister for Research, Science, and Innovation.

Verrall’s Maldivian family are no strangers to politics, either, and have held some high-ranking positions in the government.

Ayesha’s uncle, Hussain Ahmed Maniku, was an atoll chief working in the local government and her cousin, Mohamed Nasheed, was jailed and tortured for his political views, but later became the fourth president of the Maldives from 2008 to 2012. He was the first democratically elected president and one of the founders of the Maldivian Democratic Party. “He had quite a strong influence on our children. They had a lot of respect for him and his fight for democracy. It was Mohamed Nasheed that inspired our daughters to do what they do,” Lathee declares.

When in 2011 Bill retired from his job as a principal of Fiordland College, the couple was ready for a new challenge. “We had friends in Singapore who worked at a language school and tried to talk us into joining them. At that time, Ayesha had a fellowship at Singapore University and was living in a large flat, so we had a place to stay,” Lathee says.

They spent four years in Singapore teaching English as a Second Language and loved every minute of it. But their hearts were in Fiordland, so they returned to their home in Te Anau.

Asked about her thoughts on teaching, Lathee replies: “I love being in the company of young people. I thrive on it. Teaching English in New Zealand, Maldives and Singapore made me who I am. I receive many messages from my students saying that I’ve changed their lives. I feel satisfied with what I’ve done.”

Back in New Zealand, Lathee published her autobiographical book in 2018 and a year later, she compiled, edited, and published a collection of writings by Te Anau residents, titled ‘Fiordland Community’s Lockdown Responses and Reflections on COVID-19’. She is now working with her husband on recording the history of the Fiordland Medical Centre.

Sources: 1. Maldives, Wikipedia 2. Growing up in the Maldives in the 1950 and 1960s – My Story

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