For a sport that’s second only to football in popularity among the 330,000 people living in the Maldives, one that was named “national sport” earlier this year (along with bodyboarding), bashi is surprisingly obscure.
There’s hardly anything written about it online, not in English anyway. The Bashiball Foundation has a website and a Facebook page, all in Dhivehi, the official language of the Maldives, and unfortunately not one of the 103 languages Google can translate. Even the ever-reliable Wikipedia has only a single paragraph on the sport, in Italian (go figure).
I first came across bashi last year during a village tour. Walking past a sand court on the island of Guraidhoo, I watched two teams of schoolgirls wearing hijab, leggings and numbered sports tunics standing on opposite sides of a net playing… I couldn’t say what. ‘This is bashi,’ said our guide, explaining that it’s a game traditionally played by girls and women and only in the Maldives.
My curiosity pricked up its ears and led me down a rabbit hole that branched off into dead-end emails and phone calls until, finally, I found someone who could tell me more: Ahmed Shiyax, assistant executive housekeeper at a Maldives resort.
No one really knows its origin, Ahmed told me, but bashi—which, in an odd twist, also means “eggplant” in Dhivehi—was originally played with a wooden bat and a ball made of woven coconut leaves until the country’s first president, Mohamed Amin Didi, modernized the game in 1953 as part of his mission to advance women’s interests. Since then, bashi has been played with a tennis racket and tennis ball.
Like tennis, it’s also played on a court with a net across the middle. Each game has two innings and two teams take turns pitching (or serving), as in cricket or baseball, but that’s pretty much where bashi’s resemblance to other sports ends.
In bashi, the server stands with her back to the net and serves 12 balls overhead in quick succession (each of these serves is called a foali) while her opponents on the other side of the net (there are usually eight on the court at a time) try to catch her out. If they don’t, she gets a bonus serve called a sappu, which she takes facing the net. The team that serves the most uncaught balls wins the game.
Broken fingers are common, caused by high-speed serves intercepted at close range—sappu in particular can hurtle through the air at up to 60mph—and players often tape their fingers for protection, like rock climbers.
Points are awarded to individual players for catching foali and sappu balls—one and five points respectively—and the player with the most points is crowned Bashi Raanee (Bashi Queen) at the end of the game.
Although some men play bashi, Ahmed doesn’t, so he introduced me to Mufeedha Abdul Waahidh, who has been playing it for almost 30 years.
She started playing when she was 15 and now plays for her island, Maaenbudhoo, one of 56 in Dhallu Atoll in the deep south of the Maldives, on a team that includes many of her childhood friends. Her daughter, 12-year-old Juma, also plays on the island’s junior bashi team. It’s not unusual for bashi skills to be passed down from mother to daughter in the Maldives, the way our mothers might have taught us how to cook or sew.
‘I love bashi,’ says Mufeedha, ‘because it reunites me with my old friends and I get to meet new people from different parts of the Maldives, and everyone is always in high spirits.’
Bashi might be unknown to outsiders, but in the Maldives it has never been bigger. Girls play it at school until they’re old enough to join a local team and its popularity is growing among boys and men. Exhibition matches during festivals and national championships in Malé, the capital, and Addu City in the southernmost atoll are often televised. Bashi’s national sport status also makes it eligible for state funding and puts the national team players on salary.
Maybe one day this odd-looking game played on tropical islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean will be an Olympic sport. Today the Maldives, tomorrow the world…
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Photos: Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort, Louise Southerden