The power of context

I went for a food tasting the other day. During the tasting, I spilt some sauce and sauteed onion on my t-shirt. While I was in the cafe, I didn’t realize how strong the smell was. When I came home, went inside my living room, where I try and keep odours neutral for the sake of the coffee and coffee filters, the smell of ‘sweated onions’ was so overpowering.

I had plans to go to a football match in a couple of hours and all I could think of was the smell of sauteed onions and how I would smell like a Falafel Sandwich at the futsal match in Meedhoo later that evening. I changed the t-shirt, wet wiped the general area of contact on my body, sprayed perfume – nothing made that smell go away. I ended up taking another shower and putting the soiled t-shirt out in the laundry basket before I was convinced that I did not smell like food.

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Dirty socks are disgusting to the vast majority of us. Some types of cheese use very similar or the same culture of bacteria to ferment milk into cheese and the resultant cheese smells just like old socks. As it turns out, in most cheese-eating cultures, we are not disgusted by this smell when it comes to cheese.

The same bacteria that is used to ripen many cheeses, including Munster, Limburger and Port-du-Salut, also lives on our skin and eats dead skin cells. It’s called Brevibacterium; as it digests it gives off S-methyl thioesters, which smell cheesy.

How can something – an abstract smell, be perceived in so vastly different manner in two different contexts? One is the context of a worn, soiled sock and the other as food.

That is the power of context.

Understanding the power of context helps us become better human beings. Better as in being more rational, compassionate judgements about people. Batter as in more effective as an individual and as a leader. Better as in taking greater control of one’s own behaviour, actions and reactions.

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The concept of HRM in the Maldives tourism industry is still broken – 5 points for discussion

Research suggests that our language can profoundly impact how we feel about things. Human Resources is one phrase that has been the centre of many discussions in the business world. Sometime back, I heard Professor Jules Goddard of the London Business School suggest that HR could easily be turned into RH for a paradigm shift in how we think of it. RH is for resourceful humans.

My wife and I had lunch with our friend Salma a couple of months ago and we got into a similar discussion. She is a strong advocate for community empowerment, and one of the things that she goes on talking about is ‘resource’ allocation and mobilization. When I told her about my changing views on using the word resource, she said she no longer calls them that – she calls them blessings. Now, we have two very fundamentally different relationships with blessings and resources.

Blessings are more of a divine provision that we have to be appreciative of and thankful for. We cannot and should not take blessings for granted. Instead, resources are more about our cultural constructs of production and consumption. It is about commodification and maximization of utility.

I think it is high time we start looking at our teams as blessings instead of dispensable resources like many other things in our ‘production line’. In one of my previous posts on how we treat staff, I have suggested some radical changes in the way we manage teams. Here once again, are some more points I believe need consideration when it comes to HRM. Some of us call them resources, people, talent, or capital and none of it matters as long as we know the impact of our decisions on their lives.

I am still using HR in the post because it is what many of us understand.

HR and regulations – compliance versus fairness and equity

Most pieces of recent legislation that involve employment and compensation are predicated on assumptions that employers DO NOT have the best interest of the employees at heart. Naturally, this creates some friction between employees and employers. Employees become suspicious of employers, and when trust is lost, relationships break and become dysfunctional. While this is true at the level of individuals’ subjective perceptions, this is not always the case in the tourism industry. The degree of competition in the industry forces employers to offer their best to employees to attract and retain them in a labour market where talent is in short supply. The challenge for management is to find ways of shifting the focus from clearing the compliance bar to offering undeniably different benefits that stand out. I believe this is a mind game, and it is more psychological than anything else. Our effort should be on helping people see clearly in a sea of grey that has been muddied by legislation.

What I learned from Melina Palmer, author of “What your customers want and can’t tell you” is that the word customers in the title of this book can be easily be replaced with employees and most of the biases and perceptions she discusses in the book are true for our teams. There are many things that they need but do not realize they need because of the ‘lenses’ or the heuristics and biases through which we see the world.

Treating staff as JIT – a just in time resource

The hospitality business cycle for most Maldives resorts follows a very predictable pattern of peaks and troughs. This is more pronounced in larger, mid-market properties. Over the years, we learned many things through trial and error. We have learnt to not hire replacements for those leaving at the end of the peak season and wait until we start to get busier. Sometimes this works, but other times we become victims of Sod’s law. While many businesses try and smooth out the demand curve and distribute them evenly throughout the year through promotions and special offers, I do not think HRM strategies adequately address the consequences of the JIT mindset on staffing.

Mental health and social life

Life on resort islands can be challenging. All islands are remote, self-contained and self-sufficient. In our case, people live, work, sleep, eat and do everything else on the island for extended periods. People live and work away from their families, and this adds tension to their lives.

Anger issues are common in resorts, and this is generally regarded as a flaw in the individual’s personality and is held against them when it comes to probation completion, contract renewal and promotions.

Managements must try and make life on the island as much fun as possible.
HR departments will have to play a pivotal role in making the culture in resorts conducive to help-seeking and normalizing talking about mental health. Behaviour supportive of good mental health, including empathetic and emotionally intelligent bosses and colleagues, will need to be promoted and encouraged within teams and management and overt cultural manifestations.

Perhaps a logical first step might be assisting the HR and management team get an insightful understanding of where the culture is in terms of how everyone is coping with mental help challenges – stress and worries in work and personal life. Also, the same exercise can gauge how the prevalent culture treats mental health issues.

Streamlining, aligning or standardization across the board

Suppose in 2022; we are still looking at streamlining pay and benefits structures across the board. In that case, we may be going backwards as companies who base their policies on evidence are moving toward discretionary benefits packages that are designed to attract and retain the best. While this may not be practical at non-management levels, in any level or position where you need maturity, expertise and a specialist skillset, benefits packages should be customized for the person. There should always be room for negotiation as this has excellent psychological benefits.

The other unintended consequence of standardization is that management will upset some individuals who are above the mean level of the benefits scale before the exercise. The whole rationale of the standardization may be to bring the mean up, but those who were already above it will feel deprived. No one is happy to give up the privileges they currently have. One way to counter this is to leave those on the same benefits or set the baseline so that no one is forced to lose a privilege or a benefit.

Resorts have effective feedback loops already embedded in the system, such as guest reviews, post-stay surveys, and brand standard audits. To add performance appraisals to this already data-rich mix will be a box-ticking exercise more than anything else. This is already seen by many team members as an unnecessary, waste of time and energy for all involved. HR is accused of continuing this tradition to justify its existence despite bodies of evidence against the system.

Numbers without context do not mean anything. For example, while the overall turnover numbers for a resort remain with industry norms, there may be departments or particular nationalities that dominate these numbers. While the overall turnover may not mean much, at a granular level, departments may be hurting because of a localized revolving door in that department. A solution for this can only be found by looking at the particular department in granular detail.

Willful blindness – language barriers, communication and risks

Willful blindness used to be a legal term, but it has much relevance to what is happening at our workplaces. Most of us chose to ignore the elephants in the room. Toxic masculinity, stereotypical thinking and egotistical heads of department continue and perpetuate the status quo in most workplaces. The evidence for this is the lack of women overall and the lack of local women in leadership roles.

Leaders who are happy and comfortable with being addressed as ‘Boss’, ‘Bodu Meeha – Big Person as in Boss’ or ‘Sir/Madam’ aren’t adding any value to the team or creating any trust or psychological capital.

We promote the English language as the official medium of communication when the mother tongue of 99% of the teams is different. Not much consideration is given when appointing leaders to teams, even when having evidence that people who share the same identity work better together. We put Maldivians and other nationalities to supervise and manage Bangladeshi team members who do not speak or even comprehend English. My point here is not an argument against localization but rather a suggestion for common sense and a logical approach to managing the lowest ranks of our team members as effectively as possible. Our stereotypical thinking prevents us from believing that people who can speak their mother tongue at work can communicate more effectively, perform better, and feel safer and happier.

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Some of the Maldives’ most ambitious and high-profile resort development projects talk about revolutionizing the way service teams live – spend their free time and socialize. To this end, there are designated, purpose-built facilities that will ‘enrich living environments for all employees’. In the absence of any baseline data that explains the level of happiness and general well-being of employees, there is no way of establishing that this model works better than the rest. I am not sure what well-being indicators these management track and follow, and it will be exciting to find out the returns on their investment.

Everything is not about structural changes or process redesigns. Our MBAs teach us too much about BPR, and we want to re-engineer everything. As they say, why fix something that is not broken? Sometimes we need to find those simple psychological hacks that change the way people see things. We need to reframe the familiar and help people see clearly. As Rory Sutherland says we need to find small details and psychological hacks that can have big impacts.

Times have changed, and as Seth Stephen-Davidowitz points out, everything is fantastic, but no one is happy. It is because we forgot how simple happiness was. We have come to depend on instant dopamine hits to feel pleasure, and while our phones and other material addictions satiate our brains for fleeting moments without experiencing meaningful happiness.

I believe a sense of fairness and equitable benefits across the board will be a good starting point to concentrate on. Human Resources management teams in resorts need to change our mindset of employing a just in time (JIT) approach to employees. This promotes the treatment of humans as ‘just another resource’ devoid of emotions, needs, and wants that come with being human.

Money, generously endowed facilities and good food aren’t always enough to keep our resourceful humans happy.

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Questions on Fuvahmulah – just some fragments of what goes through my head

How long had the island been in its current form, shape and profile?
Which flora and fauna are not endemic, and how long have they been on the island?
Who were the first settlers?
How did avasho develop, and when?
How far back can we trace genealogy and see which ethnicity is predominant?
Based on folklore and stories handed down by generations, which houses are the oldest?
Folklore has it that the island was abandoned many times. How many of these were before and after the conversion to Islam?
The civilisation we see today is perhaps the longest-running continuous inhabitation/population?
Of the 3 southern dialects, where does Fuvahmulah fit in?

Photo: Mihaaru/The Edition MV

All archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers settled along the elevated edge of the island. According to legend/folklore, there were two townships or groups of people around Ambule (Ambul is an entry and exit point for fishermen where a channel is cleared from shore to the edge of the drop-off) and one around Vasho Veu (the circular well).

This suggests that folks moved inland much later. They would have moved in for several reasons. It could be for better farming as the island’s shape would have moved the fertile humus (topsoil) layer into the depressed centre of the island with stormwater, and cultivating some types of plants would have been more effortless. It could have been for safety. Moving further inland could have given them a greater sense of protection from any intruders.

There is no conclusive evidence about when folks moved further inland and started building houses on feeshi or small islands in the wetland area. My assumption is that this movement happened after the conversion, as no known artefacts of the pre-Islamic epoch were ever found inside the island.

My wife recently asked me what I thought about which ward Haviththa is located. She told me that Alaa calling it Dhadimagi Haviththa did not go too well with some in the audience.

I have a different opinion. Haviththa was not built on land that was part of any ward or avasho. The particular area is still known to older folks as veyre gan, probably from veyre (temple) and gama (village). It is in the temple village.

Haviththa was probably not built on land designated as part of an avah – ward, district or village.

An interesting note here… In the first land-use plan for Fuvahmulah, the area around veyre gan was identified as the most suitable area for a landfill. The primary reason is that given the orientation and profile of the island, there will not be a possibility of any smoke or stench being carried downwind into the residential areas of the island during any monsoon. This is an oasis, protected from strong winds in both monsoons, conveniently close to the sea and as stated by Mr Bell, the structure that once was Haviththa, will tower over the coconut trees and will not only be visible to but a prominent sight and a sign of welcome to any Buddhist travellers who sought its shores.

According to legend, Fuvahmulah has been populated, abandoned and repopulated more than once. There is no evidence to place these abandonments and repopulations on a chronological scale to say what happened when. We know from archaeological evidence that Haviththa is at least 1500 years old. The multiple repopulation theory is consistent with the population growth numbers, as any continuous static population would have grown at a higher rate than what was recorded about 100 years ago.

Could it be possible that the island was never wholly abandoned?

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How do you convince the public to try something new?

Dr ND Abdulla was the first Maldivian trained in ophthalmology. When he started practising in Male in what I believe would be the 60s, he was required to do general consultations. He was eager to start treating people for eye ailments and wanted to do surgical corrections and simple procedures to restore sight in many people whom he knew could benefit from the procedures. According to him, no one was willing to be the first one. People were sceptical and back in those days, the belief was that surgeries would require a team. Some also thought that a Maldivian cannot do it by himself. People needed proof that it was possible but no one came forward to become the first patient.

He devised a clever plan. As recounted to Mohamed Musthafa Hussain in an interview sometime before his passing away, he and some officials from the health ministry offered to help someone by the name of Hafolhu Dhonthakhkaanu, who used to visit houses to recite salawaiy and Quran in the evening. His vision was soon restored and people started flocking to Dr Abdulla’s surgery.

This is a strategy that visionary business leaders often use to demonstrate to the public that a product or a service has utility/benefits to them.

One example is that of Sylvan Goldman who invented the supermarket trolley. He hired male and female actors to act and stage a shopping experience walking around with a trolley through the aisles.

This was also the case when the Eads bridge was opened to the public. One of the first things that Andrew Carnegie of the Keystone Bridge Company did was to have an elephant cross the bridge. The elephant was led across the bridge by John Robinson. This was proof to the public that the bridge was safe.

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Everyone deserves a second chance

Big shout out to MTCC leadership and the team who came up with the idea and brought it to fruition. We are a very small community that has too many hopeless souls who are in need of exactly this: a second chance and someone who will believe them, have faith in them, and fight for them.

The public manifestation of our collective conscience, our privately held beliefs on second chances, and our effort to rehabilitate criminals and offenders should not conflict with each other. Society must facilitate successful reintegration rather than labeling, rejecting, and turning them away.

Second chances, an honest and influential ally in the society could really turn things around for individuals with unfavorable reputations.

We all have family and friends who can benefit from second chances. These stories are very personal and very real to many of us. This takes me back to a different time – 12 years into the past when I was directly involved in the crime prevention effort.

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I worked with a community crime prevention committee and police unit to apply insights learned from elsewhere in the application of the principles of the broken windows theory. It was a long time back. I did suggest that the committee work on some data – pre-initiative numbers/prevalence, snapshot, and annual numbers for subsequent years to draw a trend line.

Society (even what used to be tight-knit local communities on small islands) is slowly adopting western-style individualism, insulating and locking themselves in their ‘homes’. Home has come to mean the physical brick wall structure fortified with metal, doors, and gates made of steel, multiple locks, and 24-hour CCTV camera monitoring to ensure no one comes near these homes. Kids grow up ‘insulated’ from the rest of the society but tethered to the internet or their mobile devices, ‘gambling’ their time away in a virtual environment that has equal parts good and equal parts evil.

Back in those days…

Police asked for more cells and more resources to deal with the level of criminal activities prevalent in the islands back then and were guided by policies that foresaw criminality with gradually incremental projections over the next few years.

Schools asked for unscalable perimeter walls to keep kids under 18 out of school. I was told that they were ‘trouble makers’, they break the water taps, break branches, uproot trees, and use foul language. If these kids were not welcomed back through the front door and their attempts at rebelliously getting back into their school, what options are we leaving them with? Labels tend to stick and stereotypical rejection makes juveniles outcasts from society. Utilizing public funds to build walls to keep children out of anything should be a criminal offense.

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Public perception of policing success is greatly impacted by the number of cases reported on social media. Social media’s ability to real-time reporting, post-event sensationalization, and thousands of concerned users can take events out of proportion and distort perceived police effectiveness.

Are the police trying to increase numbers or reduce them? The number of arrests and successful prosecution versus the number of crimes prevented through community collaboration, youth engagement, and environmental design – where does the incentive lie for the police service?

What are we as individuals doing to make tomorrow better for all of us, especially for our children? Can we take guardianship of our own communities? Can we make the islands safe for all of us? Can we look at everything with love? Can we see ex-convicts without that label and accept them back into our communities and homes? Can we wish for others the same things that we wish for ourselves and our families? Can we hold ourselves to the same standards of ethics that we often hold others to? Can we start living with the same set of values publicly and privately?

I don’t know.

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Personality tests can do more harm than good

In HR and people-related areas, we tend to stick labels on people – extroverts, introverts, thinkers, feelers and whatnot. Labelling and stereotyping do not help relationships. We need stronger relationships, greater levels of trust and understanding within teams to achieve better results. We think that talking about differences in personality can help us understand each other better and manage our own expectations. While the end is exactly what is needed, the means are very questionable in most circumstances.

Some of us still rely on personality tests in our training and development exercises. The last time I had a conversation on MBTI was when Shaad and I facilitated a training together in Fuvahmulah. I told him what I thought of them and hope he was not offended.

I think they can be fun exercises for groups but not serious tools that we use to appraise and evaluate our teams. If we force people to take them seriously and if we start basing our people-related decisions on them, we could end up doing more harm than good.

I may be wrong. I know one can find evidence for or against anything on the internet and I change my views on many things as I acquire new knowledge.

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Why can’t it be a duck and a rabbit at the same time?

A duck is not a rabbit and a rabbit is not a duck. One is a bird with feathers and a characteristic beak. The other is an animal with fur and prominent ears. Yet, an image from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter, a German humour magazine by anonymous artists has divided people for over a century.

The duck and rabbit illusion – It is a popular optical illusion and always divides audiences. The black and white, grainy illustration is a simple demonstration of how our prior knowledge and how our thoughts shape our perception of what we see in it. If we are prompted to look for the second shape in the picture, we see it but we cannot understand how the other person can not see the first object we saw.

This is also the title of a new podcast series from two of the best original thinkers in the behavioural economics scene – professor Paul Dolan of LSE. The topics that he explored in the two seasons of the podcast include many that divide audiences. Some of them are trivial, like the question of pineapple on pizza and some philosophical, like can a fit person be fat?

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Ruhumuge lolakah aebeh nufennaane’ (An) approving eye will not see flaws’ – this is a saying that we (Maldivians) have all grown up with. Eyes see things, tangible objects, but could this be true of ideas, opinions and of people? Anecdotally, in my personal experience, I see this every day. I see how true this saying is in many cases. We ‘see’ what we are programmed to see. By programmed, I mean the degree of polarization that we as individuals reached, most often not aware of the implicit bias in our thinking that led it where we are today. The logical parallel to this statement is ‘nuruhumuge lolakah aebu noon echcheh nufennaane’ disapproving eyes will only see flaws’.

Polarization is a fact of life today. Especially, with the internet where something can be made accessible to masses with just one click, the reactions are instantaneous. We have seen how the dress illusion and many other similar illusions divided us, rational, sane and intelligent people. Political polarization and religiosity or one’s level of piety work the same way. These days, the rational middle of the bell curve no longer exists. There are two huge mountains at the ends of the spectrum and a low, drawn-out valley in between. We can be quite irrational when it comes to certain topics and decisions. We tend to allow our emotions to dictate our opinions and decisions. Behaviour, Rationality, perceptions and decision making is as much part of economics as psychology. We know we are all rational sometimes but the perfectly rational human being that many economic theories talk about does not exist.

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I made a comment on social media last year about a new Viber group that I was part of, how it felt being in a social experiment. Well, things are still quite interesting in the group. While I truly love my classmates from 32 years ago, we have all had very different life experiences over the past three decades. Our lived experiences have shaped our perception of the world around us and as any cross-section sample of society, we have different political sentiments. Some of us get carried away in the nationalist jingoism dressed up as patriotism. I am not a nationalist but that does not mean I do not love my roots and my national identity. That said, the passion and vigour my friends have for the so-called nationalist movement do not change anything for me when it comes to our friendship. I don’t care whom they support politically or whose side they take in the geopolitical battle between China and India – they are still my friends and I hope they feel the same.

Emotions can be so blindsiding that one cannot reason anything. Polarisation triggers emotions and we are all in this dilemma – solutions to our common problems can only be found if and when we can talk about these challenges in a civil manner. Taking sides and thinking in binary terms do not help.

What we think is reality, is indeed a mental construct, it is our subjective perception and two people or two groups of people may ‘see’ or perceive things very differently. What is worrying is that when you see either the rabbit or the duck, you cannot unsee it and you look for people who agree with you so that you and your group can prove to others that they are wrong. This quest to prove the other side wrong takes us into very low places, make us do nasty things and resort to throwing metaphorical mud at other groups. Social media is abuzz with such propaganda, unbeknownst to us, algorithms ensure that we only see what amplifies, strengthens and reinforces our belief. We get cornered into echo chambers where the same intolerant and, at times, angry sentiments get amplified. it is a vicious cycle and we must get out of it.

Let’s accept that fact and agree that a duck can very well be a rabbit when seeing through a different pair of eyes.

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New year’s thoughts

A new year has begun.

It is that time of the year again when a lot of us come up with new resolutions. Things we intend to do. Things we wish to do and habits we wish to form.

This year, I want to be a better person. Well, that is quite vague and lacks clarity as my wife points out.

We all want to be better people. We want to eat well, balance our diet and stick to regular mealtimes. We want to pray 5 times, recite and reflect on the Quran and the life of the prophet. We want to exercise regularly, stay healthy and active. We want to sleep early, sleep 8 hours and wake up early. We want to maintain those close relationships with family, loved ones and friends. Make those phone calls, check on them and let them know that we care.

There is one problem.

We don’t want to do it today. We want to do it tomorrow. We will be better people tomorrow – a tomorrow that never happens, a tomorrow that is always mentally postponed, happening the next day.

I think I found something in the intersection between things I like to do, things I enjoy doing and things that will make me a better person: writing. One of my resolutions for this year is to make writing a daily habit.

Writing is therapeutic. I find writing a form of meditation. This year I am going to write more. I am going to write daily. I will write for myself, not for anyone else. Writing lets me reflect on my life, my actions and my behaviour. I started writing for the school paper when I was in grade 5. Our headmaster, Mr Ibrahim Waheed inculcated in us a love for reading and writing. I write when I am happy. I write when I am confused. I started my blog when I was broken and very confused. That kept me sane and afloat those days. This was way before mobile phones became ubiquitous and Facebook/Twitter became as pervasive as they are today.

Now in my 40s, time does not matter as much as it did in my 30s. For some reason, in the past couple of years, I have become a lot more sceptical about everything in life. I no longer want to write what I used to write in my 30s. That was more about the prevalent public discourse or something to do with the lines of work I am involved in, mostly hospitality, human resources and people development. I am still passionate about these topics but I no longer wish to write about public issues. I am more excited about writing on what I have learnt in my life and on nature, our relationship with everything around us, how we interact with them and what we can learn from them.

I am fascinated by life, human nature and the environment we live in. I am intrigued by nature’s paradoxical complexity and simplicity, simultaneously in tiny creatures such as dragonflies, butterflies and bees. I am amazed by the bonds we share, the similarities and differences we see in plants and other social systems that scientists discover every day. Life is wonderful. Every life form is a complex system within a larger system that sustain and perpetuate life.

I have one special wish for all of us for this year.

Quite often, nostalgia takes me back a few decades and I dwell on the beautiful childhood we had. It was so harmonious with nature. Everything resonated with the natural rhythm of life that surrounded us. We depended on and interacted with the environment and the life forms within that environment. We took from nature only what was necessary to sustain us. Very few of us were selfish, hoarding and amassing wealth. Sharing was the norm with a strong sense of community.

All of that has changed in the last 40 years. We want to live in greater comfort, bigger houses and ride faster vehicles, wear more expensive clothing and eat processed food. Bigger, better, faster – are ambitious words and we are all going at it alone.

In Germany, there is a special name for the rat race we call life today. This constant battle against time, chasing money, material wealth and fame burns us out, drains our energy, making us sick and that is called eilkrankheit or hurry sickness.

This year, my wish for you and for me is that we will be cured of the hurry sickness.

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Dragonflies: beautiful, fascinating and awe-inspiring

One modern-day analogy that is often used to teach social change and navigation through treacherous social media is to liken it to dragonflies. They are the only insects that can change direction in midair and manoeuvre deftly and quickly using their four wings.

They are also meticulously studied by scientists who are finding inspiration in nature through biomimicry. The flight performance of adult dragonflies is closely studied for lessons in innovation. It is considered a model system for biomechanics, physicological genetics and animal competitive behaviour.

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A big part of my childhood was spent outdoors, in the reed fields and taro fields in our midst. Our lives were very much attuned to the natural environment that surrounded us. I used to meander through backyards and abandoned housing plots where thick tropical vegetation sustained unique ecosystems. We had a couple of abandoned houses next to ours. Foraging for edible berries such as shoe button Ardisia (Kashavah), bush passion fruit – passiflora foetida (dhel meyvaa) and quietly looking at damselflies was one of my most favourite pastimes. Damselflies are tiny but beautiful creatures. They came in many different colours and we called them ‘kaan’shi buru’ (probably a reference to their thin and long body).

Buru or koda buru was the most common type of dragonfly we saw. The entry in Basfoiy says the equivalent in Maaley dialect is ‘avihi‘, which I am not very familiar with. For us, buru came in two colors, a velvety black and a light green one with dark stripes. We called them galadhun buru and dhon buru (if my memory serves me right) The rest of the dragonflies included ‘Maa buru’, bondo buru, fen buru and kokaa buru. Different parts of the Maldives have different names for the dragonflies and damselflies. They are most commonly referred to as ‘Dhon dhooni’ (fair/white bird – not sure how these names were given).

For the children of our generation, catching dragonflies in the season was quite fun and engaging. We had different methods for catching the beautiful creatures. We caught them by hand. We caught them with the sap of breadfruit trees smeared on a midrib of the coconut leaf (Palm fronds are made up of many individual leaves and each has a sturdy backbone). We catch the smallest and use it as bait to catch the bigger ones. I cannot remember whether we were ever able to keep any of them in captivity for longer than a day or two.

A few years ago, I came across this video of Dr Charles Anderson who contributed greatly to the development of marine research in the Maldives in the early days. He has observed these tiny creatures dashing above in great numbers around the same time every year – during the monsoon changeover from Hulhangu (Southwest Monsoon) to Iruvai (Northeast Monsoon). This particular type of dragonfly is special. They are called Globe Skimmers or wandering gliders (Pantala flavescense) and they are known to endure the longest migration recorded by scientists – over 4400 miles. One paper explains how they end up in the Maldives as the following:

“Flight patterns appear to vary. The hardiest of the dragonflies might make the trip nonstop, catching robust air currents or even hurricane winds and gliding all the way. Others may, literally, be puddle jumpers. Pantala needs fresh water to mate and lays their eggs – and if while riding weather current they spot a freshwater pool created by a rainstorm – even on an island in the middle of a vast ocean – it’s likely they dive earthward and use those pools to mate. After the eggs hatch and the babies are mature enough to fly – which takes just a few weeks – the new dragonflies join the swarm’s intercontinental and now multi-generational trek right where their parents left off.”

In the conclusion to his 2009 paper on dragonflies in the Maldives, Dr Anderson hypothesizes that the dragonflies (predominantly Pantala flavescens) which appear in the Maldives every year from October onwards arrive from India; that these dragonflies fly at altitude following the ITCZ and using advantageous tailwinds; that many complete the ocean crossing from India to East Africa; that there is a return crossing (of a subsequent generation) in small numbers to the Maldives in May and in large numbers to India in June–July; and taken together, that, as part of a wider web of migratory movements, there is an annual migratory circuit of P. flavescens across the Indian subcontinent and eastern Africa, involving perhaps four generations, requiring two ocean crossings and covering something of the order of 14000 to 18000 kilometres.

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Learning from nature – unimaa

WWW is also sometimes known as the Wood Wide Web. Yes, wood as in the forest.

I have wondered about the interconnected nature of everything for a long time but I have never before thought that trees are social, can communicate and share emotions. This is exactly what Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the mother tree found out almost 3 decades ago. Her article appeared in Nature magazine in August 1997 and the term Wood Wide Web was born. She isn’t the only ecologist who finds these fascinating insights within the plant kingdom – Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweet Grass and Peter Wohllenben author of The secret lives of trees are among other authors who make compelling cases for the intelligence of the plant kingdom.

Maybe the above is true in the case of large forests or vast expanses of wooded areas. Let me share with you my experience with Uni or Beach gardenia (Guettarda speciosa L.) to which we will refer as just ‘uni’ in this post. It is a common shrub on all islands of Maldives. If we think of it is as a flower, Uni is not a spectacular flower by visual appeal. It is white, not a clean white but a dull white, elongated stem and 4-9 lobes or petals. What is most characteristic about the flower is the beautiful smell it has. It is mild and sweet. Uni is a nocturnal flower and makes sense as it depends on moths for pollination and by design, smell works much better at night in signalling to those pollinators who work at night. It is classified as a perennial, tropical shrub that is endemic in the tropics including the Maldives. Uni is a prominent part of the island vegetation and some resorts put in a lot of effort to preserve and incorporate existing trees into landscaping during the construction of the resort.

In island culture, unimaa was part of the bouquet that shaman’s required for certain kinds of healing. The mix was called ‘fas vaththaru maa’ (five kinds of flowers). The other flowers too are flowers with equally sweet smells. They are three different types of Jasmine, uni and screwpine flower. Daring women used to bury them in their hair against popular wisdom back in those days. Nocturnal flowers bloom at night and their smell is strongest during the night getting stronger towards midnight and according to the nature of these flowers and their pollinating partners, there will always be a flurry of activity in and around those flowers. This could have led to the idea that these flowers could very well be ‘possessed and they should not be plucked from the trees after sunset.

Interesting fact: the chemical constituents of jasmine aroma includes indole – a substance found in human faeces and at very low concentrations can have a beautiful and attractive fragrance. Indole is also used in perfume production.

Where I grew up, women used all types of jasmine and uni to make garlands and what used to be called ‘mal kaali’ (flower necklace) for decorative purposes. This could very well have been a practice that continued from pre-Islamic times where flowers are an integral part of offerings.

Unimaa also reminds me of the class of wines in Germany known as “eis wein’, while grapes for this wine are harvested in the morning while they are still frozen, Maldivians gathered fallen uni flowers early morning and these flowers are called ‘fini unimaa’ (cold unimaa). The cold and damp conditions of predawn could very well enhance the sweet smell of these flowers.

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During the pre-opening days, when we were still busy building, taking care not to disturb the natural vegetation, we noticed that a number of the trees started dying – just drying out over time. It happens in stages. First, the foliage, leaves start becoming smaller and smaller in size, and eventually, the trunk dries up. Apparently, this happens on most islands.

Uni is a difficult shrub to propagate and we try as much as possible to salvage existing plants but this is not always successful.

One of the reasons commonly associated with this is the regular use of pesticides in the solutions used for mosquitoes. I guess these trees require very precise amounts of sunlight. When vegetation is cleared around the uni tree, the amount of sunlight it is exposed to increases dramatically and the trees try to adapt by shrinking the foliage/leaves thus reducing the sunlight-receiving surface area of the foliage. We tested this assumption by cutting down some branches and putting up shades around the tree to minimize sun exposure and this expedited the regeneration.

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When I look at those who survived, those still fighting and especially those thriving happily, I feel uni is a social being. They like to be part of a diverse group of many different varieties. Lone uni trees look frail with ever-shrinking foliage but those comfortably nestled within a group of many different varieties thrive happily with large dark green leaves.

Think of this tree as a long-serving member of your team. People get used to certain routines and consistency in interactions with other people. Change is hard for almost everyone, just like the uni tree, if you are changing the environment around them, make sure you provide them with enough shade or protection. Otherwise, excessive sun exposure can slowly kill them even if they try to adapt.

Or perhaps, fill your teams with diverse personalities and let each compliment the other in a functionally competitive environment and let them thrive just like uni.

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