Kira Bre Clingen
- Pronunciation: na-kai (nɛkaɪ)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Dhivehi, Maldivian fishermen
- Example: When developing a nakaiy calendar, Marblehead residents outlined twelve weather periods corresponding to optimal northeastern planting schedules and planned festivals to celebrate the beginning of each microseason.
Perched on the bow of a bamboo dhoni, Mr. Ali Rishman, the director of one of the few environmental NGOs in the Maldives, extolls the rhythm of the monsoon as we cut through the open sea beyond the capital of Malé. Pradeep, a fisherman from neighboring Villimalé, grunts as he mans the tiller. The dhoni, the traditional fishing vessel of the islands, has no keel, leaving it largely at the mercy of the winds and the navigator’s brute strength. He points to five wispy cumulus clouds lingering over the cerulean lagoon. “Leftovers from the nakaiy Furahalha,” he explains. “Now it’s Hiyaviha, the skies should be clear, the tuna catch should not be so good. The market is too full for this time of year.”
Furahalha and Hiyaviha are two of the twenty-six nakaiy periods. Meaning “constellation” in Dhivehi, nakaiy are divisions of the Gregorian calendar by predictable weather patterns. Located in the crosshairs of the Indian Ocean monsoons, the Maldivian climate generally obeys the outline of wet and dry seasons familiar to the tropics. Lasting thirteen to fourteen days, each nakaiy is given a name in Dhivehi, and each is characterized by its wave height, cloud pattern, tidal surge, current strength, and sea surface temperature, creating a reliable framework of expected microclimatic conditions.
The atolls were first explored and settled by sailors carried on dry-season winds from the Indian subcontinent nearly three thousand years ago; these same monsoon winds still regulate transportation and bring rain to the country. Yet the winds are not always benevolent, and to this day most islands within the twenty-six atolls remain uninhabited, incapable of sustaining human life. Investing in permanent settlements beyond thatched bamboo huts is a risky undertaking for families who live at the mercy of the tides and gales. Flooding and inundation are commonplace across the nation, whose highest point stands just 2.4 meters above sea level, making the Maldives the lowest-lying country in the world. Indeed, the vastness of the surrounding ocean dominates the lives of the 325,000 islanders. The white sand islands themselves, comprising just 1 percent of the total area of the Maldives, seem no more permanent than crashing whitecaps, ringed by turquoise waters that abruptly turn a deep ultramarine where the fringing reef gives way to nothing but the deep sea. This sense of physical fragility has been exacerbated by a series of climatic events over the last two decades, including storm surges, coastal flooding, and the depletion of the freshwater lens that floats above sea level. The frequency and intensity of these phenomena is likely to increase, with the Global Environmental Fund declaring that “no settlement on the Maldives is entirely safe from the predicted impacts of climate change.”
Only the capital, Malé, the sole urban island in the country, is guaranteed the delivery of fresh produce, imported consumer goods, and, most importantly, potable water. As such, one third of the population lives in Malé, which is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Tenants routinely sleep in eight-hour shifts to afford the rent, which is disproportionately high compared to other islands. Residents of far-flung islands have been relocated to the capital atoll in an effort to concentrate the population where centralized services, especially fresh water, can be more easily provided. The Maldivian government and people must balance the country’s unparalleled ecological fragility with the demands of civil society, a negotiation that nakaiy have helped to facilitate.
Indigenous Maldivian fishermen have relied on nakaiy for generations. Along with fourteen thousand other fishermen, Pradeep uses nakaiy to predict and plan his fishing, transportation, planting, and social life. Originally conceived by seamen observing their environment, the hyperlocalized microseasons have moved beyond the working vernacular of fishermen and are now embedded within the social structure of the atolls. As the terms expanded into the common lexicon, each microseason was attributed new dimensions of meaning, including superstition and ritual beyond the original abiotic descriptions. Today all Maldivians use nakaiy in conversation, regardless of their profession, gender, caste, or creed.
Nakaiy are synonymous with beginnings. In late February, sharp bolts of lightning are let loose during the microseason of Furabadhuruva; Maldivians bring the fire to earth, burning small plants and bushes to ready the soil for planting during Burunu, a nakaiy in late April. During Reyva, the nakaiy commencing on March 26, potatoes sprout hairs that rise above the sandy soil, which are clipped and dried for use in stews eaten at festivals that celebrate the beginning of the southwest monsoon. Adha signals the advent of the fishing season on June 17, accompanied by the transplanting of yams and any other vegetables that have managed to take root in the nutrient-poor, sandy soil. Assidha brings the first storm of the wet season on April 8, when Maldivians step outside to welcome the rains as well as marriage proposals. Even Pradeep’s son-in-law, an international businessman born and raised in Malé, adhered to the tradition and asked Pradeep’s daughter to marry him on April 10. Pradeep jokes that all his grandchildren are likely to be born during Uturahalha, a nakaiy in late January, nine months after the engagements and hasty weddings.
Passed down through the oral tradition, nakaiy are a repository of observational citizen science. In their most abbreviated definitions, they relate abiotic factors to the natural resource economy, primarily fishing and subsistence agriculture. The fishermen who originally coined the terms weighed the optimal times to fish against the best weeks to come ashore to plant crops, attempting to provide year-round nutrition in a temperamental environment exacerbated by seasonal fish migration and substandard soils. Yet underlying the shortened description of each microseason is a deeply embedded knowledge of the way that weather patterns affect the ecology of the islands and surrounding oceans. Viha, beginning on November 1, ends the strong winds of Hey before it. Viha is a calm period during which albacore, known colloquially as “fish,” spawn every two days. After Viha, the winds gradually increase in tempo until the arrival of the northeastern dry season monsoon on December 10, when Mula’s fierce gusts push fleets of dhoni away from the southern atolls where albacore plankton are dispersed by the current and the catch is depleted.
Maldivians’ categorization of natural phenomena into discrete periods represents an attempt to eradicate the fear of instability and violent natural chaos across a seascape that is largely beyond human control. The act of assigning names to abiotic features is an attempt to grapple with the climate and increase the sense of human power over the environment. Nakaiy act as social guidelines that regulate behavior and promote human well-being. By fishing during specific nakaiy and planting crops during others, islanders have enough food to eat throughout the year; by thatching homes at the beginning of the wet season, palm fronds are given time and the necessary water to regrow. The extension of nakaiy to include a social dimension further builds resilience against the natural environment. By encouraging engagements during Adha, a rainy fortnight with poor fishing, ceremonies occur when fishermen have already pulled their dhonis out of the water. Rituals like the cutting of potato hairs, which are eaten in a stew during a wet season festival, ensure that all families in the island communities sow crops annually to participate in the rich celebrations. These celebrations and rituals help bind the nakaiy to community practices that enrich life and incentivize participation in natural resource cultivation and management. Further, nakaiy are common, shared terminology in a country whose disparate geography offers little sense of Maldivian national identity. Seen through this lens, nakaiy act as a unifying framework in a geographically disparate nation with few commonalities except the language (Dhivehi), the climate, and the omnipresent ocean.
Holding a razor blade flush to an albacore’s pectoral fin, Pradeep cuts into its flesh and methodically fillets the tuna. The central market in Malé is housed in an aluminum warehouse on a concrete pier. The market was built on land reclaimed from the sea, with sand dredged from a nearby lagoon. Like the rest of the capital, it is shielded from the ocean by a pile of concrete tetrapods that protect against storm surges. The tetrapods were installed after a 1987 tidal surge that inundated the capital, the same year that Pradeep says the monsoon’s arrival shifted for the first time in his lifetime. Since then, the previously consistent weather patterns have become more unpredictable. “Hulhangu’s storms used to stop fishing come April. Last year we stopped in July but the catch was bad. The storms came too late but they came quickly.” Ali Rishman joins in: “I’ve seen it myself. It used to be that when the northeast monsoon began blowing, fish would jump off the reef and onto the islands. But that’s all gone now.”
The fishing industry has suffered as a result of climate change, with the formerly predictable nakaiy growing more erratic as the overfished stocks are gradually depleted. As the stability of the microseasons is weakened, nakaiy may become irrelevant and recede from the national lexicon to the domain of elderly fishermen, relegated to cultural lore of a bygone age. The erosion of legible and predictable patterns in the natural environment exposes the fragility of human society and its inability to control the climate. As their current definitions, intact for generations, become irrelevant and unintelligible, nakaiy risk fading as a Holocene luxury. Similarly, the relationship between the fishermen and the sea as well as the social interactions facilitated by nakaiy are unraveling. As their language becomes untethered from environmental reality, the twenty-six nakaiy must be transformed and redefined, or risk being archived as outdated vernacular.
The adoption of nakaiy as a loanword offers a proactive emphasis on local place identity that is critical to adapting to climate change. Nakaiy are not moment-to-moment Doppler radar measurements; nor were they created spontaneously. The form of twenty-six periods, their specific names, and the traditions surrounding nakaiy are all the result of intergenerational communal collaboration. In this way, the details of nakaiy are somewhat arbitrary: the tides, monsoons, and currents existed long before they were enlisted to describe discrete periods of weather. Nakaiy can be tailored to any community interested in the process of developing a calendar of hyperlocal microseasons.
Creating nakaiy outside of the Maldives will require similar processes of collaboration to generate local observations and knowledge of wind patterns, soil moisture, atmospheric pressure, aviary migrations, and other factors that are essential for comprehending the effects of climate change on communities of place. If nakaiy are adopted and developed by communities at the town or city level, these place-based microseasons can simultaneously act as a baseline for variability in climate and drive adaptation to build resilience to climate change.
Climate change presents a global collective action problem. Its effects seem intangible and irrelevant until they are considered at a scale at which the impacts can be felt, suggesting that localism is likely to be the required modus operandi of all communities in responding to climate change. In a world with increasingly unpredictable weather, heightened self-sufficiency may be critical, necessitating a sharp decentralization from the world we now inhabit toward shorter distribution lines and more productive local economies. This decentralization includes a shift toward community organizations and cooperatives that protect both producers and their surrounding ecosystems, encouraging local stewardship and investment, both in time and financial resources. Beginning this transition to localism now ensures that grassroots movements will be keystones of communities and ease the transitional pains of shrinking economies to a low-energy and low-consumption future.
The creation of local nakaiy would represent a conscious, collaborative shift toward localism. As such, the detailed and specific observations of weather patterns and abiotic factors would have to be spearheaded from within each community. Involvement in local social and political groups, such as those required to create nakaiy, are shown to be consistent and significant indicators of ties to local places. Place identity is not static but rather a continuously constructed dialogue, in which “emotional attachment to places . . . develops through direct presence and activity at a locale.” The rigorous localism required to construct nakaiy offers a way for all citizens to engage with the world immediately around them. While fishermen, loggers, or others who are directly dependent on the extraction of natural resources may be most attuned to the climate, any group of interested individuals who share a landscape can measure temperature, precipitation, sunshine, wind chill, air and sea currents, soil acidity, visibility, glacial and permafrost melt, pollen release, or any of the hundreds of other factors that can contribute to a robust understanding of the local climate. High school science students, hunting clubs, environmental groups, nonprofit organizations, town governments, and senior citizens are all capable of engaging in the kind of grassroots citizen science initiatives that the development of nakaiy would require. Environmental artists, avid diarists, and outdoor bench enthusiasts can all add rich details to the community record. To validate citizen scientists, local universities and community colleges may be enlisted for access to scientific tools or previous experiments, while the Internet offers historical climate data as well as real-time updates from weather stations across the globe. Following the scientific method, after data are initially collected, trends and anomalies must be determined and explained. Group analysis, whether by extant organizations or a community task force dedicated to localized microseasons, would play a key role in determining the distinct and legible nuances of local climates. Questions about frost, sunlight, rainfall, and a host of other factors from the data collected can be used to devise a system of nakaiy that divides the calendar year into periods that are climatically notable. These periods may be given specific names or numerated by specific days of the year as start dates, but they must be broadcast, shared, discussed, and edited by an audience wider than their original creators.
In the Maldives, nakaiy are performative. They actively shape both the natural resource economy and the social lives of humans. In Western societies, even those whose landscapes are asphalt and concrete, communities can use nakaiy in similar ways. The timing of the first frost may end the community gardening season but signal the beginning of community-share agriculture from greenhouses. Weeks of highest rainfall can be proactively scheduled for indoor maintenance projects like cleanups and painting. Shade-loving varieties can be planted with success in herb gardens and home vegetable plots in cloudy parts of town, perhaps in agreement with neighbors who live in sunnier areas who can trade apples for watermelons or carrots for corn. Local festivals celebrating the spring equinox, autumn harvest, clearest moon, or king tide are rooted in the observation of natural phenomena and are accessible to all. These events could be held to coincide with the beginnings of individual nakaiy, further embedding the hyperlocal into the community ethos and contributing to the rebirth of localisms and rituals anchored to the specific landscapes they celebrate. These rituals would become embedded in cultural systems, encouraging greater investment in local communities and becoming “natural” within generations.
Nakaiy are not stable ideas or definitions; they should not be thought of as judgments about the condition or desirability of a landscape but as collections of environmental knowledge that can help to bridge the divide between humanity and the natural world in a time of transformation. As such, communities must be able to evolve nakaiy by changing their definitions when observations of microclimate or weather pattern diverge from their functional description. These changes can be shared with scientists, politicians, and NGOs as documentation of environmental change over time, especially in societies that may require strategies for temporary resettlement or permanent migration in the future.
In the Maldives, former president Mohammed Nasheed has ex-pressed fear that the nation’s capacity to adapt might be overwhelmed and that attempts to preserve the islands from expected sea-level rise may be futile. He has publicly explored options for the transplantation of the entire population to neighboring nations. Nakaiy, which today are expressions of unity across disparate islands, may become nostalgic mementos for Maldivians displaced from their countrymen. The process of translating nakaiy to other locations could strengthen connections between neighbors, acquaintances, and arrivals displaced from their homelands. By bringing the soil, water, and sky surrounding local communities into focus, nakaiy might serve to enhance a sense of place and encourage investment in shared landscapes and social lives—gestures of unity amidst the upheavals of the Anthropocene.
Another Path: Plant Time
1. F. Abdulla and M. O’Shea, “English–Dhivehi Dictionary: A Guide to Language of the Maldives,” Maldives Royal Family, 2005, http://www.maldivesroyalfamily.com/pdf/maldives_dictionary_1.0.pdf.
2. Jeroen Pijpe, Alex de Voogt, Mannis van Oven, et al., “Indian Ocean Crossroads: Human Genetic Origin and Population Structure in the Maldives,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 151, no. 1 (2013): 59.
3. Benjamin K. Sovacool, “Expert Views of Climate Change Adaptation in the Maldives,” Climatic Change 114, no. 2 (2012): 299.
4. United Nations Development Program Maldives and Disaster Risk Management Team Maldives, Detailed Island Risk Assessment in the Maldives: Executive Summary (Malé: UNDP Press, 2007), ii.
5. Global Environmental Facility, Project Identification Form: Integration of Climate Change Risks into the Maldives Safe Island Development Program (Washington, D.C.: GEF Agency, 2009), 3.
7. Fishery and Aquaculture Organization, Country Profile Fact Sheet: Maldives (Rome: Fishery and Aquaculture Organization, 2009), 9.
9. Yi-fu Tuan, Landscapes of Fear (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 36.
10. Dolores LaChapelle, “Ritual Is Essential: Seeing Ritual and Ceremony as Sophisticated Social and Spiritual Technology,” in The Palgrave Environmental Reader, ed. Daniel G. Payne and Richard S. Newman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 235.
11. Paul S. Kench, “Compromising Reef Island Shoreline Dynamics: Legacies of the Engineering Paradigm in the Maldives,” in Pitfalls of Shoreline Stabilization, ed. Andrew Cooper and Orrin H. Pilkey (Amsterdam: Springer, 2012), 169.
12. United Nations Development Program Maldives and Disaster Risk Management Team Maldives, Risk Assessment, xi.
13. Dyanna Riedlinger and Fikret Berkes, “Contributions of Traditional Knowledge to Understanding Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic,” Polar Record 37, no. 3 (2001): 319.
14. Fikret Berkes and Dyanna Jolly, “Adapting to Climate Change: Social-Ecological Resilience in a Canadian Western Arctic Community,” Conservation Ecology 5, no. 2 (2001): 19; C. S. Holling, “Regional Responses to Global Change,” Conservation Ecology 1, no. 2 (1997): 3; Gleb Raygorodetsky, “Why Traditional Knowledge Holds the Key to Climate Change,” United Nations University, December 13, 2011, https://unu.edu/.
15. P. Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer, Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2009), 136; Riedlinger and Berkes, “Contributions,” 28.
16. David Haenke, “Bioregionalism and Community: A Call to Action,” Fellowship for International Community, 2005, https://www.ic.org/; Fred Magdoff, “An Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Economy,” Monthly Review 66, no. 4 (2014): 1.
17. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 239; Pope Francis, “Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, of the Holy Father Francis, on Care for Our Common Home,” 2015 encyclical, http://w2.vatican.va/.
18. Tom Prugh, “Childhood’s End,” in State of the World, 2015: Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute/Island Press, 2015), 129.
19. Lee Cuba and David M. Hummon, “A Place to Call Home: Identification with Dwelling, Community and Region,” Sociological Quarterly 34, no. 1 (1993): 115.
20. Brian W. Eisenhower, Richard S. Krannich, and Dale J. Blahna, “Attachments to Special Places on Public Lands: An Analysis of Activities, Reason for Attachments, and Community Connections,” Society and Natural Resources 13, no. 5 (2000): 423.
21. Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), 35.
22. Erik Assadourian, “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures,” in State of the World, 2010: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability (New York: Worldwatch Institute/Norton, 2010), 3.