The seafaring Bajo people of Southeast Sulawesi have only been land dwellers for the past 30 years. But the call of the sea is still strong despite their new homes on stilts, writes Paul van Nimwegen.
The sea is for the Bajo,” proudly explains Kodu. “We have always lived on the sea, it is our place.”
Kodu is a lobster fisherman from Wakatobi National (Marine) Park in distant Southeast Sulawesi. He belongs to the Bajo, an ethnic group that for nearly a millennium wandered in houseboats. In 1904, Francisco Combes described the Bajo as knowing “no other home than their boat … (and) are such enemies of the land that it does not get from them the slightest labor or industry, not the profit of any fruit.”
The Bajo mostly lived a subsistence-based lifestyle, using the resources of coral reef systems and nearby shores. They traded with land communities for cassava and other resources. Communities were small and sustainable. Living in these houseboats, they moved between moorages in extended family groups, guided by fishing conditions, political circumstances and kin obligations. When an area became depleted, the community simply moved on, allowing it time to recover.
“We often went gleaning at night, and during the day we went fishing,” says Mbo Tadi, a Bajo man who lived in his houseboat until he was 30 years old. “We caught sea cucumbers, clams, turtles, fish and many other creatures. We dried the fish on the coconut-leaf roof of the boat to give to our family or sell.”
It was not until the early 1970s that the last Bajo of Wakatobi finally left their houseboats. Today, there are five vibrant and unique communities built in the sea. Houses are stilted or built on platforms made from coral collected from surrounding reef flats.
But the legacy of a nomadic life and their connection with the sea remains strong. Freedom is central.
“We are a very different people who live on land,” any Bajo person can be heard saying. “We are not bound by the restrictions of land dwellers.”
Travel is still an integral part of Bajo life. The land remains foreign, with some men only setting foot on terra firma once a year.
Traditional beliefs in sea spirits have become mixed with Islam. These spirits are benevolent and provide good luck in fishing, health and family. There are many different rituals involving offerings of food and other items.
“We ask Mbo Janggo (coral spirit) to give us fish,” says Mbo Enda, a Bajo shaman. “Mbo Janggo is the same as us, but lives in the sea. Mbo Janggo and God are equal, they can both give the Bajo fish.
Although a minority group, Bajo are important regionally. They are the greatest exploiters of the Wakatobi marine environment. Bajo people obtain anything that has a value or use. How they use the sea depends on the season, tides and moon.
“If there is a dark moon, we search for sea cucumber, lobster and use nets to catch shark and fish,” says one of the fishermen. “During the full moon, we focus on squid and snapper using line fishing.”
The prices given by middlemen drive what species are targeted. These middlemen are linked to regional and international trade networks. Octopus, lobster and shark fins are in high demand at the moment.
During the calm season, men go on extended fishing journeys to remote atolls in search of high-priced commodities. Long-distance travel has always been part of Bajo life. For more than 500 years, Indonesian seafaring people have been fishing in Australia.
Many Bajo men from Wakatobi make the two-day journey to Roti Island in West Timor, which they use as a base for fishing in Australia.
“I usually go with two other people in a wooden motorized boat and stay at sea for a week,” said Nardia, an experienced shark fisherman. “We bring water, cigarettes and food. We use a long line baited with dolphin that we spear while traveling to Australia.
“I spent three months in jail in Australia. When I was released, they told me if I was caught again, I would be sent to jail for a year,” he added without concern.
Many young Bajo men migrate to other areas of Indonesia or Malaysia, living for long periods away from their families. They dream of becoming wealthy and having an adventure.
Konduru is a migration veteran, having lived in Riau Islands, West Java and Malaysia.
“Most Bajo enter Malaysia illegally,” he says. “They usually live on the edge of the city mixed with non-Bajo and work for Chinese-owned fishing boats. They go with aspirations of making money, but it does not happen.”
For there are experiences that are not to be found in Wakatobi.
Konduru told how the Bajo fishermen end up frittering away their money in bars and on prostitutes when payday arrives.
“But they say ‘next month we receive a salary’. Many people are not successful. Out of 100 people who migrate, 10 of those are successful in sending money back home.”
The changes in the Bajo lifestyle since settling have happened in the face of growing marginalization. In the past, other ethnic groups considered the Bajo primitive due to their lack of permanent housing, their preference for living on the sea and their faith in sea spirits.
This discrimination continues, as the Bajo struggle to maintain their culture in a modern Indonesia. The Bajo suffer poor health and education, and are increasingly coming into conflict with governments and conservation organizations. Driven by a desire to earn money and aided by new methods such as motors, nylon nets and cyanide, the Bajo are significantly affecting fragile coral reef systems.
“The Bajo of Wakatobi are facing a challenging future,” says Iskandar Halim, director of the Wakatobi-based Bajo NGO Yayasan Bajo Matilla. “The Bajo are making a transition from a subsistence-based thinking and lifestyle to a modern Indonesia.
“Many people don’t have an understanding of saving money, conservation or health. This means they are exploiting the marine resources harder to earn money, but are not thinking about the future. As resources become depleted, the Bajo way of life could become threatened …”
The Bajo’s Tale
- Bajo people are the most widely dispersed nomadic seafaring people in the world, scattered across three nations. They live in a maritime zone that exceeds 3.25 million square kilometers, extending from the southern Philippines, through the northern and eastern coasts of Borneo and Sulawesi, to Nusa Tenggara and the southern Moluccas.
- The Bajo of Wakatobi are part of the Sama-Bajau language group. Studies have shown that this group originated in the southern Philippines region of Northern Sulu, Mindanao and the Basilan Straits around 800 AD. It is likely that the Bajo adopted nomadism at this time because this was the most effective way of exploiting the marine resources.
- During the start of the 10th century the Bajo started to migrate. The developing trade links between China, India and the Middle East may have acted as a catalyst. As the Bajo moved, they established networks of trading communities along coastlines. Their maritime skills and wide distribution would have given them an advantage in exploiting this growing trade network.
- The Bajo probably reached coastal Sabah (Malaysia Borneo) by the 11th century and the Strait of Makassar and other areas of eastern Indonesia in the following few centuries.